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Gay sex ruling will help HIV/AIDS prevention in India

Amnesty International, the global human rights group, on Friday welcomed the Delhi high court ruling decriminalising homosexuality and alleged the Victorian-era law that banned gay sex had been used to stifle HIV/AIDS prevention in India.

world Updated: Jul 03, 2009 17:26 IST

Amnesty International, the global human rights group, on Friday welcomed the Delhi high court ruling decriminalising homosexuality and alleged the Victorian-era law that banned gay sex had been used to stifle HIV/AIDS prevention in India.

"This British colonial legacy has done untold harm to generations of individuals in India and across the Commonwealth," Amnesty International said.

Thursday's ruling overturned the 19th century British colonial law, Section 377, which banned engagement in consensual gay sex as "carnal intercourse against the order of nature".

"The law had been used to stifle the work of organisations working on HIV/AIDS prevention in India," Amnesty said.

India is home to some 2.3 million people with HIV, an epidemic that is primarily fuelled by unsafe sex between men and women.

Sex between men is also a major driver of the epidemic, but Section 377's ever-present threat of criminalisation made gay men reluctant to disclose their status.

In highlighting the HIV/AIDS implications of the ruling, Amnesty joined the ranks of many international and Indian health organisations that have campaigned for decades for Indian authorities to repeal the colonial-era law.

These campaigners point out that criminalising sexual behaviour not only violates human rights, but also serves to drive HIV/AIDS underground as people seek to conceal their sexuality for fear of the law.

It is harder for health workers to tackle HIV/AIDS - or any other condition for that matter - when people who are suffering are afraid to go to doctors for fear of being socially stigmatised or criminalised.

Experts say the ruling by the Delhi high court is expected to make it easier for health authorities to reach out to men who have sex with other men (MSM).

MSM include not only those who are in gay relationships, but also men who may be married or in a relationship with women.

The stigma, marginalisation, discrimination and criminalisation faced by the MSM population in India, as well as the absence of reliable data on them, are thought to be major hurdles in India's efforts to provide universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support by 2010 - something New Delhi signed up to at the United Nations.

On Thursday, the Delhi high court rejected every argument put forward by the government in defence of Section 377.

The government's contention that Section 377 had helped stop the spread of HIV/AIDS - a view that had health workers shaking their heads in disbelief - was described by the court as "completely unfounded" and "based on incorrect and wrong notions".

Highlighting the human rights implications, Amnesty International urged the Indian government to address abuse and discrimination by police and other officials and take measures to end "discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in access to economic, social and cultural rights, including housing, employment and health services".

With India having no laws specifically criminalising child sex abuse, the court's ruling opens up another window as it now restricts section 377 to cases of rape and child abuse.

Amnesty urged Indian lawmakers to rewrite the law to deal explicitly with those crimes.