In the past, lubricants in Tanzania had been hard to find, and when someone was successful, it’s most likely they were too expensive for them.
But now a ban on the import and sale of lube by the government - who claims they’re “promoting homosexuality”, part of a broader human rights crackdown sweeping the east African country - has worsened things, with campaigners worried that HIV/AIDS will rise.
“The community have returned to using saliva, margarine, herbs, coconut oil, Vaseline, cooking oil, because of the lack of accessibility of lube,” one activist, who asked to remain anonymous for safety fears, told SBS.
“So now we expect Tanzania to have a robust sexually transmitted infections (STI) cases [sic] and increased HIV infections.”
The country is one of many in Africa where homosexuality is illegal, with a law prescribing life in jail for same-sex acts between men.
According to UNAIDS, “condom and lubricant programming is highly effective in preventing sexual transmission of HIV”, with lube being “highly important” for gay men, sex workers and post-partum women.
HIV/AIDS prevention programmes should always make water or silica-based lubricants available with condoms, and UNAIDS recommends them for use during anal intercourse to prevent condom breakage.
“Providing lubricants in countries where anal sex is criminalised is difficult but is nevertheless an essential part of HIV prevention”, says a UNAIDS 2014 guidance note.
But the activist said there had been “alarm bells” over lubricants in Tanzania since 2013.
“This is the perception from most of the community,” he said. “They think that they’re increasing or promoting homosexuality.”
It wasn’t until earlier this year, however, after lube was discussed at a workshop hosted by the Awareness Group On AIDS Prevention (AGAP) that the ban was announced.
“I am glad to inform you that some of the organisation have already begun to implement the order by removing lubricants [from] their project, I congratulate them very much,”1 Tanzania’s health minister Ummy Mwalimu wrote on Facebook in July, following it.
“However I still call upon other organisations to obey the order. We will not hesitate to take serious measures, including de-registrate of the NGOs who continue to distribute lubricants in their projects to men who have sex with men (MSM).”
Mwalimu encouraged Tanzanians to “fight against AIDS by using other strategies which are also [bound] with our traditions”.
According to DefendDefenders (the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project), her counterpart, deputy health minister Dr Hamisi Kigwangalla, confiscated documents belonging to Community Health Education Services and Advocacy (CHESA), and some staff were ordered to report to the police, when the minister turned up unannounced at the offices of the organisation in August to inspect compliance with the ban.
CHESA, who work with works with female, male and transgender sex workers, among others, have been accused of promoting same-sex relations, and have launched legal action. They allege their privacy and right to freedom of association has been violated, and also applied for a temporary injunction to prevent deregistration.
According to reports, gay men in clubs were arrested after the announcement of the ban, and have reported instances of receiving threats on social media.
“We are keeping a low profile,” said the activist. “People are very scared.”
Tanzania has achieved success in HIV control over the past decade, but there were still 54,000 new infections in 2015, and the adult prevalence rate was 4.7 per cent, According to AVERT. Gay men were disproportionately affected by the epidemic, with nearly a quarter living with HIV.
Procurement by The Global Fund had improved availability of lubricants in the country, and they had been found in pharmacies and other stores in urban areas, but one tube could cost up to $12 AUD, which the activist said was “so expensive” for most Tanzanians.
Now the ban is in place, “no pharmacy or anywhere else is selling lubricants”.
“We don’t understand the direction of our new government in response to the HIV epidemic,” he said.
The lube ban is part of a wider clampdown against vulnerable groups by the regime of President John Magafuli, known as “The Bulldozer”, who became president nearly a year ago.
Hassan Shire, executive director of DefendDefenders, said that activists had “expressed fear over doing public work on LGBTI issues, and some organisations doing work on these issues have been threatened with de-registration”.
In July, Dar es Salaam based Clouds Television were ordered by the Tanzania Communication Regulatory Authority (TCRA) to apologise to viewers for five consecutive days after airing an interview with a gay man.
“We have noticed a worrying trend this past year, since the election, whereby human rights defenders and journalists who speak out with criticism of the government, on the violation of land rights, civil and political rights, health-related rights, and minority rights are targeted,” said Shire.
Beside the arrests of activists and journalists in land wrangles, a paper was banned for three years and another television channel warned over government criticism.
Tanzania is not alone. In 2014, neighbouring Uganda - where homosexuality is also illegal - experienced “harmful government backlash against health services aimed at men who have sex with men”, pointed out Asia Russell, executive director of advocacy group Health GAP. More recently, Uganda’s annual pride parade was unlawfully attacked by police.
“As is the case in Tanzania, there is no basis in law for attacking programs that deliver services for gay men," said Russell. "In fact, governments have an obligation to provide quality non-discriminatory health services to all people, including LGBT communities.”
She said the Obama administration and other major donor governments “should break their near-complete silence in the face of reprisal and repression” in Tanzania.
A US State Department official told SBS they were “concerned by recent statements and actions by Tanzanian officials targeting civil society organizations and health care providers”.
They urged Tanzania to “continue to engage with all stakeholders, to maintain its prior commitments to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and to serve all of its people and populations equally without bias or discrimination”. The UK Foreign Office did not respond.
SBS also sought comment from the Tanzanian health minister but they did not respond. State House communications director Gerson Mswigwa refused to comment.
- 1. This quote is from a screenshot that has been translated for the author and may not be word for word.