Academic journal article Population

Homosexuality and Bisexuality in Senegal: A Multiform Reality

Academic journal article Population

Homosexuality and Bisexuality in Senegal: A Multiform Reality

Article excerpt

In Northern countries, many epidemiological and socio-behavioural studies have been conducted on male homosexuals in relation to HIV/AIDS. In sub- Saharan Africa, the subject was ignored for many years because HIV transmission was perceived as being mainly a heterosexual issue and, to a lesser extent, a perinatal one (Chin and Mann, 1988). Although the existence of homosexual practices in Africa has been documented for many years (Crowder, 1959),(1) it was only after 2000 that epidemiological and behavioural surveys were carried out on this population (Baral et al., 2007).

Senegal is an African pioneer in this field and, starting in the late 1990s, several sociological surveys (Teunis, 2001; Sappe, 2003; Niang et al., 2002) revealed the particular vulnerability of men having sex with men (MSM)(2) in the country. Homosexual practices are strongly condemned and punishable by law in Senegal. Although homosexuality is not mentioned explicitly in any law, an amendment to the Penal code of 21 July 1965 stipulates that "unnatural sexual acts" may incur a five-year prison sentence (Loi de base n° 65-60 du 21 juillet 1965 portant Code penal). Homosexual men live in extreme insecurity and are subjected to domestic, community and institutional violence. They are stigmatized by Senegalese society as a whole and especially by healthcare professionals, whom they are reluctant to consult when symptoms occur.

Against this backdrop, an epidemiological survey was carried out in 2004 on 462 men selected by snowball recruiting from the homosexual networks of five major cities including Dakar, with the agreement of the Senegal Ministry of Health. The survey showed a 21.5% prevalence of HIV, which is 30 times higher than in the population as a whole (Wade et al., 2005). The Senegal health authorities, working with NGOs, launched a number of programmes specifically targeting men having sex with men. They included provision of medical assistance to people with sexually transmissible infections (STI) and HIV, using specialized healthcare professionals trained in working with this understandably wary (because stigmatized) population. They also took the form of campaigns to increase awareness of sexual risks in the MSM networks and an appeal addressed to all players in public life highlighting the need to take the specific risks of MSM into account.

In a society where homosexuality is strongly condemned, one of the main political arguments used to justify these programmes was the protection of the population as a whole: Senegal's efforts in the fight against AIDS would come to nothing if the government failed to address this particular source of the epidemic in the homosexual population, since these men's heterosexual practices could spread the epidemic to the entire population. The hypothesis whereby bisexual people form a "bridge" from MSM to the population as a whole, has frequently been used, and in a range of contexts. For instance, it came up in several chapters of the collective work edited by Peter Aggleton on bisexuality and AIDS (Aggleton, 1996). In Senegal, it is a public health argument that allows politicians to take charge of a socially stigmatized group while minimizing negative social reactions. However, this hypothesis has not been formally documented nor empirically proven, so must be advanced with caution. The relative weight of bisexuals in the total population is hard to measure and the epidemic can spread simultaneously in different ways (Kahn et al., 1997; O'Leary and Jones, 2006). Nevertheless, the risk to these men's female partners is higher because of the unprotected heterosexual practices of some bisexuals (Crawford et al., 1996, p. 56).

Research in Senegal has rarely examined in detail the heterosexual practices of MSM, however, even though they have been mentioned on occasion. Teunis (2001, p. 177) revealed that some MSM are married or have "girlfriends". Sappe also mentioned bisexual behaviour, but restricted this to heterosexual unions used as a "social cover" (Sappe, 2003, p. …

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