Let’s get the record straight. Delhi High Court’s decision to decriminalise homosexual acts between consenting adults benefits both transgenders (hijras) and homosexuals, yet there were few transgenders among the hundreds celebrating the court order across the country.
Ironically, while a division bench of Chief Justice A P Shah and Justice S Muralidhar stressed on the need for inclusiveness, — saying it “is manifest in recognising a role in society for everyone” — the role of hijras in fighting for equal rights was ignored by the smart, gay set out on the streets.
Also lost were the voices of health activists such as the Naz Foundation, an NGO working for HIV/AIDS prevention that had filed the public interest litigation for amendment of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code on grounds that criminalisation of adult sexual behaviour hampered HIV prevention and care services from reaching them.
HIV data underlines that men who have sex with men (MSM) need to factor in health. With 2.3 million people living with HIV in India, the overall adult (over 15 years) prevalence is 0.34 per cent. This means one in every 300 Indians over the age of 15 has HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
In comparison, HIV prevalence is 7.4 per cent in MSM, the highest among the so-called high-risk groups such as those attending sexually-transmitted diseases clinics (3.6 per cent), female sex workers (5.1 per cent), and injecting drug users (7.2 per cent).
While equality and freedom to love whoever you want was the theme of celebrations here, the significance of the judgement on public health among homosexuals and transgenders was not lost on the international community.
Among the first to congratulate the Indian government was UNAIDS. “Oppressive laws such as Section 377, drive people underground making it much harder to reach them with HIV prevention, treatment and care services,” said UNAIDS executive director Michel Sidibé. Even UNDP, which primarily focuses on development issues, highlighted the public health implications. “Inappropriate criminalisation is a major impediment to achieving universal access to HIV prevention, care and treatment,” said Jeffrey O’Malley from UNDP’s New York office.
Currently, more than 80 countries have legislation that prohibits same sex behaviour. “HIV and AIDS services have to reach MSM because if they don’t, infection can skyrocket, as it has in Burma, where HIV is over 25 per cent among MSM, and in Thailand, where it recently crossed 20 per cent,” said Ashok Row Kavi, founder of the Humsafar Trust, an NGO that works with transgenders and MSM.
Sure, rights to equality and opportunity are a must, but so is the right to health. It is an inclusive issue and you cannot chose one over the other.