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Transphobia in Latin America Is Preventing an Effective HIV Response

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If the recent furore over frankly rather spiteful comments about transgender women by high profile journalists Suzanne Moore and Julie Burchill has shown us anything, it's that we still have a very long way to go before transgender women are able to live free from fear and discrimination.

And that's just in the UK. Imagine if you're a transgender woman in some Latin American countries where being able to access your right to identity, health and equality is all but impossible and where you face abuse, violence or even death on an almost daily basis.

As International Women's Day approaches, the International HIV/AIDS Alliance - who I represent - together with the Latin American and Caribbean Network of Transgender People (REDLACTRANS), has published a report that reveals how a shocking trend of systematic targeting of a population on the basis of their identity is going uninvestigated in Latin American countries including Guatemala and Honduras.

Entitled 'The Night Is Another Country: Impunity and violence against transgender women human rights defenders in Latin America' the report indicates that transphobia in the region is leading to a terrible climate of impunity with executions, torture and arbitrary detentions of transgender women, many of whom are human rights defenders, going unpunished. Between 2005 and 2012 in Colombia, 60 transgender women were murdered without a single person having been brought to justice. In the same period 35 transgender people were killed in Guatemala with only one person undergoing legal proceedings.

You might be wondering why an organisation working on HIV issues would concern itself with the transgender community. Quite simply because transgender women in Latin America face an extremely high HIV prevalence rate of around 35 per cent compared with the general population which stands at less than one per cent. More often than not they are thrown out of their homes at a young age and excluded from education meaning that the vast majority are pushed into sex work, even as teenagers. This in turn leads to a much greater risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Transgender women who are sex workers in the region, often also activists, are subject to regular police brutality and face further humiliation when they are taken to prisons and detention centres intended for men where they suffer disproportionately from sexual violence inflicted on them by other inmates and security officials.

Marginalising trans women dissuades them from seeking health services and leads to a derailing of HIV prevention efforts. In most countries in Latin America, with the exception of Argentina, there is no legislation explicitly recognizing or mentioning transgender identity, thereby rendering them invisible and denying them legal and civic status. Additionally, public health care institutions are not usually accessible to such women and do not cater for their needs.

Because of the social exclusion that transgender women face and the context of violence and discrimination that surrounds them, it is virtually impossible to provide an effective HIV response focused on this at risk group. Key recommendations made by the report include calling for the arrests and trials of those responsible for murders, hate crimes and other human rights violations; providing legal recognition of gender identity; extending comprehensive health services to the transgender community; and ensuring that prisons and healthcare systems accommodate transgender women in facilities intended for women and protect them from abuse and degrading treatment, including rape.

Governments must respect, protect and fulfil their obligations towards their transgender citizens and, in doing so, put an end to senseless killings and dehumanising brutality. Then, and only then, might transgender women like Rosario (not her real name) from Honduras who has been shot at four times in the past 12 years feel safe to exercise her right to the identity she chooses.