We’ve come a long way in advancing the rights of the LGBT+ community who remain disproportionately affected by HIV. But on International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexism and Transphobia (Idahobit), I fear the UK is stepping away from its commitment to help safeguard and protect LGBT+ people around the world.
Progress on global LGBT+ rights and the HIV response continues to be slow, uneven, and chronically underfunded. According to the Global Philanthropy Project (GPP), between 2017-2018, donor government funding on LGBT+ issues accounted for just 0.04 per cent of all international development efforts. There is however a very strong need and rationale for the government to fund new intiatives.
Even before Covid-19, the HIV response was in a very precarious position. Despite being preventable, approximately 690,000 people annually still die from an Aids related illness. New HIV transmissions are being increasingly concentrated amongst marginalised groups, including the LGBT+ community. Covid-19 has led to massive disruptions in the HIV response. Across facilities surveyed by the Global Fund, HIV testing fell by over 40 per cent in 2020.
One of the central reasons why the HIV response is off-course is that we have not successfully addressed the hostile environment that marginalised communities face – 71 jurtistictions still criminalise same-sex sexual activity. The criminalisation of homosexuality legitimises prejudice and exposes people to hate crimes, police abuse, torture and family violence. Until LGBT+ identities are fully decriminalised, these communities will continue to have a heightened vulnerability to HIV and Aids.
For example, transgender people are 49 times more likely to acquire HIV compared to the general population, with a global estimate of 19 per cent of transgender women living with HIV.
Thankfully we know what works and what we have to do. Since the start of the HIV response, the leadership of affected communities and civil society organisations has been critical. This is from peer support, delivering services and working to reform punitive laws. But by looking to cut the aid budget by a third, the UK government has decimated the very funding needed to advance LGBT+ rights and get the HIV response back on track.
This includes cutting the government’s funding to UNAids from £15m a year down to just £2m a year. A cut of more than 80 per cent. This mirrors drastic cuts across the board for civil society organisations doing critical work in supporting marginalised communities.
UNAids plays a leading role in driving policy reforms to strengthen the rights of the most marginalised people, including the decriminalisation of LGBT+ communities. UNAids supports marginalised communities in advocating for the advancement of their human rights.
It also leads on crisis responses during human rights violations. For example, to secure the release of people arrested in crackdowns for being from the marginalised communities most affected by HIV, including LGBT+ people. This work is key in helping prevent countries from sliding into persecutory policing and securing the dignity and health of vulnerable people in many parts of the world
The organisation’s impact is so huge because it is catalytic – UNAids makes sure that countries’ HIV funding is well spent, develops best practice and helps countries reform laws, like LGBT+ criminalisation, that stand in the way of beating Aids. Investing just £15m a year into UNAids is a relatively small amount of money but can have a truly transformational impact.
Only a month ago, the government strongly endorsed UNAids’s new strategy which proposes bold action on fighting stigma, discrimination, violence and punitive laws. Its work aligns closely with the government’s own development priorities. But by now looking to cut their funding by over 80 per cent, the government risks jeopardising this very work they’re meant to be championing.
As we approach next month’s UN High Level Meeting on HIV and Aids, to deliver on the promise to Leave No One Behind, the government must act now. It must safeguard critical funding and urgently return to the 0.7 per cent aid spending commitment.