"Men who have sex with men (MSM) are ours sons, our fathers, our brothers, our neighbours, our teachers, our doctors, our ministers.”
So said UNAIDS Caribbean Regional Support Team (RST) Director, Dr. Ernest Massiah, at a press conference in Port of Spain, Trinidad earlier today. Hosted jointly by UNAIDS and the Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR), the briefing was aimed at raising awareness in T&T about both glaring gaps in the national response to HIV as well as some key, new initiatives.
Massiah said that prioritising the MSM agenda in Trinidad and Tobago is in keeping with the national vision for equality as expressed by the constitution and national anthem.
“This is nothing more than living up to the ideals of this country: that we would all be equal. If you look at the last 50 years we have faced and overcome a series of struggles about the rights of people and equal participation regardless of race, colour and sex. This MSM agenda is the continuation of a struggle to ensure the rights of all people irrespective of difference," Massiah asserted.
He explained that MSM in T&T are subjected to a variety of structural barriers such as discrimination experienced in healthcare settings. These, he said, increase their HIV risk. The Caribbean Men’s Internet Survey (CARIMIS) which is underway now is meant to find out more about the degrees of risks, access and exclusion that MSM experience in each Caribbean nation. The study will help individual country programmes to respond more meaningfully to their MSM communities. Already almost 200 Trinidadians have participated in the survey. Massiah urged more men to take part.
Kent Klindera is Director of the MSM Initiative at amfAR, a programme that provides financial and technical support to community organisations working to reduce the spread and impact of HIV among MSM in low-and-middle income countries. Klindera explained that over the weekend amfAR met with seven regional activists in Port of Spain to decide which of 23 Caribbean applicants should be funded. In the end US$135 000 will be allocated to seven organisations. He pointed to new research which shows that globally HIV funding is not following the epidemic and that funds earmarked by PEPFAR and the Global Fund for MSM are frequently diverted. In T&T where the HIV response is funded by the government spending on MSM, sex workers and substance users amounted to less than one percent of total HIV expenditure between 2004 and 2009 according to a study by UNAIDS T&T and PAHO.
“MSM have biological vulnerabilities that put them more at risk to HIV but a lot of the structural environment creates other vulnerabilities that deny equal access," Klindera said. "There is a human rights issue. These folks are not able to access services. What amfAR is working to do with a lot of communities is to scale that work up with governments. We had a good meeting with the Ministry of Health about a study they are conducting that will finally give data on seroprevalence in Trinidad (among MSM). We make small investments into organisations so that governments and larger donors can pick up. We are catalysing something."
He also announced that two local NGOs have been recommended for funding—Friends for Life and the Coalition Advocating for Inclusion of Sexual Orientation (CAISO). CAISO Director, Colin Robinson noted that although Trinidad and Tobago’s first National Strategic Plan (NSP) on HIV/AIDs noted that there should be investments to build the capacity of MSM to participate, this mandate “has not converted into action”. Robinson stressed that responding to HIV for all classifications of people is about far more than condoms.
“It’s about looking upstream and understanding that when people are having sex that puts them at risk, there’s a whole lot more that happened before that. It’s about what community they come from, the self-esteem they bring to the transaction and their ability to say no and to negotiate,” he listed. “We can’t just look at condoms. We need to look upstream at all the other things that are happening that put people at risk.”
Caption: Luke Sinnette of Friend For Life (from left), Ernest Massiah of UNAIDS, Colin Robinson of CAISO and Kent Klindera of amfAR