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Tanzania Tries to Ban Lube to Stop Gay Sex

The crackdown on lubricant comes several weeks after a regional commissioner in Tanzania announced that anyone who is gay, or anyone who simply follows gays on social media, would be arrested.
July 25, 2016, 6:45pm
Image via Human Rights Watch

Government officials in Tanzania are defending a new policy that will restrict access to lubricant in the deeply conservative east African nation. The country's health minister, Ummy Mwalimu, reportedly told local media that "the government has banned the importation and use of the jelly to curb the spread of HIV," on the basis that lubricant encourages homosexuality, which is criminalized in Tanzania.

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On Twitter, Mwalimu and Deputy Minister of Health Dr. Hamisi Kigwangalla have since appeared to backtrack somewhat, telling their followers that lubricant will still be allowed in Tanzania so long as it is distributed by a hospital. "We will place a mechanism…on the open market in order to stay in the hospital only," Kigwangalla posted on Twitter in Swahili. The officials both single out NGOs as entities that will no longer be allowed to distribute lubricant anymore.

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Getting lubricant from a hospital rather than a nonprofit organization is an important distinction, one that human rights workers worry could have a chilling effect on Tanzania's population of both gay people and sex workers. "I think it [the restriction] is clearly intended to target gay people in particular and also sex workers," Human Rights Watch Senior Researcher Neela Ghoshal, whose work focuses on LGBT rights abroad, tells Broadly.

Besides its obvious benefits of making sex more pleasurable, lubricant is also widely believed to prevent the spread of STDs when used in combination with condoms. But while people can still purchase condoms in Tanzania, lubricant has been difficult to access, due to the local public perception that only men who have sex with men and sex workers want lubricant. Sex outside marriage, while also taboo, is not illegal, and that distinction is likely why the government is not cracking down on condoms, Ghoshal explains.

"It is very taboo to talk about sexuality at all in Tanzania," and there are very few outspoken LGBT activists, Ghoshal says. Local groups that provide assistance to gay people and sex workers often do so under the guise of being a general public health organization. Several years ago, one such local organization made a post on Facebook complaining that water-based lubricant was difficult to access in the country. The post went viral, Ghoshal says, forcing the organization (which Ghoshal did not want to name for safety reasons) to go underground. But it also led to an important policy change: Tanzania's health regulators began allowing non-governmental organizations to distribute small packets of lubricant. While K-Y Jelly had been available in stores, it was sold only in large containers that were unaffordable for the general population. And because homosexuals are often the target of discrimination and harassment in Tanzania, purchasing the product from a store required courage.

When small, government-friendly nonprofit groups began distributing lubricant in 2014, on the other hand, they became what Ghoshal describes as a much less intimidating alternative. "NGOs that work on HIV were able to essentially advocate with the government and argue" that providing lubricant is "necessary for HIV prevention," Ghoshal says. But just two years after allowing NGOs to distribute lubricant, the Tanzanian government is now reversing its policy and restricting access to lubricant once again.

In addition to the country's population of gays and sex workers, Tanzania's women could also be hurt by the restrictions. When Ghoshal interviewed Tanzania's sex workers several years ago for a Human Rights Watch report about the widespread discrimination of gays in the country, she says they told her that policies criminalizing homosexual sex and prostitution in the country also hurt single women more generally. For instance, women who want to get tested for HIV in hospitals are often told to bring their husbands. If hospitals are now given full control to vet who is allowed to obtain lubricant, then women who are unmarried may also be unable to purchase the product, she explains.

The crackdown on lubricant comes several weeks after a regional commissioner in Tanzania announced that anyone who is gay, or anyone who simply follows gays on social media, would be arrested. "Many of our contacts there have basically gone underground because they don't feel safe," Ghoshal says.