The Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), Nyasa Rainbow Alliance (NRA) and the Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP) have called upon the Malawi Government to consider repealing discriminatory laws that block effective responses to HIV and Aids among key populations.
The call comes as Malawi joins the rest of the global community in commemoration this year's World Aids Day.
Main activities to commemorate the day are taking place Bumba Full Primary School Ground in Rumphi where participants are expected to reflect the need of leaving no one behind in the fight against the HIV and Aids epidemic.
Initially, State President Dr. Lazarus McCarthy Chakwera was billed to preside over the commemoration before he suddenly cancelled all his trips with immediate effect to concentrate on his in-tray work.
The commemoration is being held under the theme: "End Inequalities. End AIDS. End Pandemics."
The local translation for the theme being "Tonse ndife ofanana. Pamodzi tithetse EDZI. Mogwirizana tithetse miliri."
But CHRR, NRA and CEDEP are challenging that unless the Malawi Government creates a conducive environment where everyone can freely access HIV and Aids care and support, the country will labour in vain its efforts to end the epidemic.
"To end the HIV and AIDS epidemic, it is critically important that we create a society where all people can access HIV and AIDS services without the fear of arrest, prosecution or violence. It is sad to note that due to criminalisation, a lot of transgender people, gay men and other men who have sex with men (MSM) remain in the closet, unable to come out in the open to access the services they need," reads the statement.
CHRR Executive Director Michael Kaiyatsa and his CEDEP and NRA counterparts, Gift Trapence and Eric Sambisa, respectively, have signed the statement on behalf of their organizations.
Kaiyatsa, Trapence and Sambisa argue that criminalisation of transgender people, gay men and MSM has implications on efforts to end the epidemic in the country.
They say although data is limited, the Malawi National Strategic Plan for HIV and AIDS (2020 -2025) estimates that around 7 percent of MSM are living with HIV in Malawi.
The human rights activists emphasize that although this is a decrease from a decade ago when prevalence stood at around 21 percent, this remains an unacceptably high level.
"The national strategic plan also estimates that around 55 percent of Malawian sex workers are living with HIV. The high HIV prevalence among the key populations is due to a number of factors, including the punitive legal environment, as well as violence, stigma and discrimination.
"We observe that discriminatory laws, such as sections 153 (a), 156 and 137A of the Penal Code, which are used to criminalise consensual sex between adults of the same sex, drive key populations underground, making it harder for service providers and others to reach them with potentially lifesaving HIV and AIDS prevention, testing, and treatment services. Criminalization also increases their risk of acquiring HIV.
"Globally, gay men and other MSM are around 28 times more likely to acquire HIV than the general population and yet are much less likely to access HIV services, according to data from UNAIDS. In 2017, gay and other MSM accounted for 18 percent of new HIV infections worldwide," say the activists.
On a positive note, CHRR, CEDEP and NRA have commended the Malawi Government for recognising gay men and other MSM as a key population in the national HIV and AIDS programming.
They further commend the government for including lubricant distribution as part of the national strategy to combat HIV and AIDS in the country.
The cite the Malawi National Strategic Plan for HIV and AIDS (2020 -2025), which has set for itself an ambitious distribution target of 1.25 million lubricants annually.
Kaiyatsa, Trapence and Sambisa say the mere inclusion of such an ambitious target for gay men and other MSM is a massive achievement considering the conservative nature of Malawi society.
But the human rights activists warn that such interventions are likely to achieve little unless laws criminalising these groups are repealed.
"In view of the above, CHRR, NRA and CEDEP recommend that the Government of Malawi should abide by its 2012 commitment and decriminalize consensual same-sex conduct; that Parliament should repeal all provisions in the Penal Code, which criminalise consensual same-sex conduct and sex work and that the Malawi Human Rights Commission should ensure that its inquiry on LGBTI issues in Malawi provides information on rights abuses of LGBTI people and make concrete recommendations to the government to improve their situation," concludes the statement.
When she addressed journalists in Lilongwe on Monday ahead of today's event in Rumphi, the Deputy Minister of Health and Population, Chrissie Kalamula Kanyasho, stressed the need for everyone to rally against and confront societal inequalities, stigma and discrimination that drive the spread of HIV as well as to reach out to people who are currently not receiving essential HIV and AIDS services.
Kanyasho observed that collaboration is the only way Malawi can achieve her dream of ending Aids as a public health threat by the stated year.
She expressed disappointment that despite Malawi performing exceptionally well in reducing new infections among adults, new HIV infections are rising among some subpopulations, citing the 28 percent of all new HIV infections being adolescent girls and young women aged 15-24 due to social-cultural and economic factors, which make them more vulnerable to HIV than their male counterparts.
She appealed to journalists to research, cover and document the sessions nationwide, while at the same time informing the nation on what is taking place in various communities.