Violence Against Transgender Women In Latin America Thwarts HIV Efforts

A transgender poses for a photo before the start of Argentina’s annual gay pride parade in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Saturday,
A transgender poses for a photo before the start of Argentina’s annual gay pride parade in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012. Argentina has improved rights for sexual minorities over the last years, becoming the first country in Latin America to legalize same-sex marriage, and this year, the Congress approved Argentina's gender identity law, granting people the right to change their legal and physical gender identity simply because they want to, without having to undergo judicial, psychiatric and medical procedures beforehand. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

HIV prevalence among transgender women in Latin American countries is significantly higher (35 percent) when compared to the HIV incidence among the rest of the female population (less than 1 percent), reports the Huffington Post UK.

Transgender women in Latin America also face far more difficulties when it comes to accessing HIV prevention and care, as well as to medical services, due to transphobia, an unchecked form of discrimination, which makes these women targets for discrimination, violence and sexual abuse.

In a report entitled The Night Is Another Country: Impunity and violence against transgender women human rights defenders in Latin America, the International HIV/AIDS Alliance and partners have investigated transphobia in Latin American countries, revealing a disproportionate number of violent acts against transgender women which have gone undisciplined.

“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,” wrote Dr. Alvaro Bermejo, Executive Director, International HIV/AIDS Alliance in the Huffington Post UK’s blog.

Other key findings of the report included:

  • Approximately 80 percent of transgender activists interviewed reported violence or threats of violence from state officials including “extrajudicial executions, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and arbitrary detentions that extend beyond the heading of hate crime.”
  • 79 percent of transgender murders in the world took place in Latin America for a total of 664 cases
  • In Guatemala and Honduras, 60 percent of interviewed transgendered activists were subjected to arbitrary detention at some point in their lives
  • 90 percent of violence against transgendered women was related to sex work

Transgender women, sex work and HIV

The high percentage of transgender women in sex work is directly related to the high incidence of HIV among the population, explained researchers. According to Bermejo, transgender women are often thrown out of their homes at a young age and excluded from an education. In order to make money, many feel they have no choice but to turn to the sex trade.

“About six months ago, I got in a car with a man who I know is a policeman,” stated a transgender activist from Guatemala City, Guatemala, in a study report from the International HIV/AIDS Alliance. “He hired me to provide my sexual services, but afterwards he didn’t want to pay and he wouldn’t let me get out of the car. He shouted at me, ‘Today you really are going to die, hueco!’ I told him to kill me, because I knew that sooner or later I’d end up dead, because for me, life is a bonus.”

Working in the sex trade puts many transgender women at risk for sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV, however, most Latin American countries do not recognized transgender people as a population, and therefore there are no laws protecting them or catering to their health care needs.

The majority of transgender women, states Bermejo, have no access to basic health care, and many clinics do not support their special needs. Not only are services limited, but due to the threat of violence against them, most transgender women look to keep their identities concealed, therefore rarely seeking medical attention.

“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,” Bermejo stated in the blog.

Report recommendations

To help bring much-needed HIV care to transgender women, the Alliance report notes the following issues need to be addressed:

  • Arrests and trials must be made for those responsible for hate crimes against transgendered women
  • Legal recognition of gender identity
  • Targeting the transgendered community with health care efforts
  • Ensure health care clinics and prisons allow transgendered women to use female-only facilities where the likelihood of abuse is minimal
  • Acknowledging and protecting transgendered women from the risk of rape and abuse from both the public and from state employees
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