As the Zambia Prison service embarks on a campaign to reduce HIV prevalence among men who have sex with men, gay rights activists say more needs to be done to tackle homophobia and discrimination in the country.
Prisoners are one of the groups who are most vulnerable to HIV infection. Percy Chato, commissioner of Zambian Prisons, said prison service data as of November 22 last year, showed that the HIV prevalence rate among 3,008 male prisoners stood at 10 percent while it was five percent among 104 female inmates.
Chato said HIV infection in Zambian prisons is due to ongoing transmission related to overcrowding and a lack of adequate prevention and treatment services.
"The challenge we are faced with as prisons administrators is that we do not know to what extent it [homosexuality] exists or whether it is a forced sexual practice or consensual sexual practice," he added. "Therefore, the issue of men having sex with men in prisons requires further investigations."
According to Chato the prison service, with the help of various stakeholders, is carrying out an HIV/AIDS sensitisation programme to promote abstinence from sex. He claimed the programme will help lower HIV infection rates among prisoners.
Human rights crisis
HIV prevention among men who have sex with men and LGBT people in Zambia is a contentious issue. Same-sex sexual activity between both men and women has been criminalised since British colonial rule and a sodomy conviction carries a 14-year prison sentence.
Although certain clauses in the country's constitution may be interpreted as overriding this, they do not specifically ban discrimination against LGBT people.
Frank Chanda, a human rights, LGBTI and HIV/AIDS advocate, said that Zambia needs: "LGBT-centered dialogue that tackles the social and political issues that currently drive homophobia across the country."
Churches oppose condoms in prisons
As well barriers within the legal system, Zambia's LGBT community face opposition from the country's churches, which are against promoting gay rights. They oppose the distribution of condoms in prisons on the grounds that this promotes homosexuality. Supported by the churches, the prison service promotes abstinence as its main prevention approach.
Zambia Episcopal Conference spokesperson Fr Paul Samasumo said the Catholic Church does not support gay rights. He said the church is working with prison staff to make prisoners aware of how to protect themselves from HIV infection through abstinence, and how to access antiretroviral treatment.
Chato said that Zambian prisons had seen a decrease in HIV prevalence during the campaign. "Most inmates are now more aware of the danger of indulging in sodomy and its consequences," he said.
One inmate of Mongu Central Prison, who asked not to be named, said that prisoners supported this approach. "We would rather embrace programmes for good behavioural change than consent to the distribution of condoms," he said.
Discrimination has to stop
LGBT activists continue to argue that more needs to be done to help men who have sex with men in the wider community to protect themselves against HIV. As a result, they face arrest and prosecution.
Gay rights activist Paul Kasonkomona was recently arrested after defending same-sex relations on Zambian television. The government charged him with "inciting the public to take part in indecent activities". If convicted, Kasonkomona would have been imprisoned for one month or fined.
He said he was arrested for speaking out about the need to protect gay rights in order for the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the country to be addressed; currently there are a lack of health programmes that cater for LGBT people.
"In particular, there is an urgent need to include men who have same-sex relationships in the country's National Aids Strategic Framework. In order to help this shift, there has been a move to collect baseline data on HIV/AIDS prevalence amongst men who have sex with men and women who have sex with women," he said.
"The Zambian government should take immediate action against government officials who make discriminatory statements against LGBT people, or arrest or detain them," Kasonkomona said. "The attacks on LGBT people need to stop."