Q&A: Activist Badr Baabou on the complex challenges of homophobia and HIV in the Middle East and North Africa

17 May 2016
Badr Baabou - Tunisian activist

Q&A with Badr Baabou

To mark the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT) AVERT spoke to Badr Baabou, an LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) activist in Tunisia, about the challenges facing these communities in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
His message is that despite a lot of negative debate, LGBTI communities in MENA are starting to build strong national and regional networks.

Key regional stats:

  • At 0.1% MENA has one of the lowest HIV prevalence rates in the world, but is increasingly becoming a region of concern
  • Since 2001, new HIV infections have risen by 35%
  • Between 2005 and 2013, AIDS-related deaths increased by 66%
  • MENA has the lowest antiretroviral treatment (ART) coverage of any region in the world at 11% - the main reason for this increase in infections and deaths
  • Men who have sex with men (MSM) are one of the groups most affected by HIV and AIDS.

What is the daily reality for the LGBTI community in the MENA region?

“The context for the LGBTI community in MENA is complex on various different levels. The legal context criminalises homosexuality throughout the region and in some countries is punished by the death sentence.  Homophobia is engrained throughout society, although in some countries a small section of society is open to diversity.

Religion also plays a big part – interpretation of Islamic holy texts, the Qur’an and the Sunnah, varies in terms of whether homosexuality is considered to be banned, but those claiming it is illegal are ‘louder than the others’. This tends to be the voice the public listen to.

In Tunisia, homophobia and violence are widespread. In recent years, there has been a wave of homophobia that has made the situation worse, with calls to violence and people being insulted and attacked in the street. In 2015, controversially a man suspected to be gay was sentenced to a year in prison and subjected to an anal probe.

Despite this, Tunisia’s 2014 constitution gives some hope and ammunition to activists – it recognises that all citizens are equal.

What makes the LGBTI community vulnerable to HIV in MENA?

“Generally countries in MENA deny the existence of the LGBTI community. This makes them really hard to reach. Access to services is low because there are high levels of stigma and discrimination.

In some countries there are targeted prevention and support services for men who have sex with men in large cities, like Tunis. But this is not the norm. This makes it hard for people to get the information they need.

We’re also really lacking data on the epidemic – national surveys are done for UNAIDS reporting but they’re not comprehensive. Data is available for some big cities but not elsewhere, so the size of these populations isn’t known.

This means these populations are not well understood, so information and services are not well targeted, even where there is a will to reach them.

What is civil society's role in the region?

“Civil society’s role is very important but we do not have enough of a voice – we’re not completely involved. Of course it differs from country to country, for example in the Gulf States there’s no real involvement of civil society. Tunisia, Lebanon and Morocco are the exceptions in the region; we have more freedom of speech.

The Tunisian national AIDS response is informed by both government and non-government consultation, but involvement can often be theoretical. The national strategic plan for AIDS talks about human rights, but there has been nothing concrete, no roadmap or action plan with civil society involvement.

Civil society organisations, such as Association Tunisienne de Lutte contre les MST et le SIDA (ATL), are providing HIV and sexually transmitted infection (STI) services to marginalised groups in Tunisia. We now also have four or five people from key populations on the Global Fund’s Country Coordinating Mechanism in Tunisia (a platform bringing together the public and private sectors to submit proposals to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria and oversee grants) and have a voice for the community, which is a small victory.

What is your message for IDAHOT?

“This year’s theme of mental health and well-being is very important for us – I am co-chair of M-Coalition, which published a study on mental health among men who have sex with men in the MENA region. However, there is a big difference between what happens here compared to other parts of the world.

Although Tunisia is more open than other countries in the region, we are still a long way from prioritising mental health as people are still being killed, attacked and imprisoned. Survival is the priority for most people.

Despite all the problems that exist in the MENA region and all the bad news, there is a positive. Here in Tunisia, the LGBTI community has become a topic of public debate. Even if there are negative discussions, we start to move forward when our existence is no longer being denied. We’re also starting to build strong networks nationally and regionally.

Badr Baabou is co-founder and Chairman of DAMJ (meaning ‘inclusion’), an organisation working for equality and justice for the LGBTI community. He is also co-chair of M-Coalition, the first regional network on MSM and HIV in the MENA region which advocates to improve access to HIV services in member countries.  He previously worked for ATL, a national Tunisian organisation working to reduce STIs and HIV among MSM.

Photo credit:
© Badr Baabou