My Right to Information, My Right to Health

by Agev Iorfa N., Head of Programs, Total Health Empowerment & Development Initiative THEDI

Once a peer educator, forever a peer educator! My first cohort session was held in October 2013. How proud I felt facilitating sessions to foster positive behavior change among gay youth in Benue State. I took peer educating to heart, knowing fully well I was looked up to. Steadily the flock under my care grew to include other peer educators, the LGBTI and other vulnerable persons in Benue State, as a Counsellor/M&E Officer in 2014 and currently the Head of Programs. My heart broke to pieces when a member of my cohort died in November, 2015. Do not get me wrong! Of course, people will die and life continues but the circumstances around Armstrong’s death shattered my heart.

A young promising Event Manager, only 22 years old was snatched away by death. At 20, Armstrong was already seeking small loans to set up his business. Rikky, a friend of mine who had the opportunity to chat with Armstrong a few weeks before his death, revealed that Armstrong knew he had 3 more years. Shocked as any other person would be, Rikky asked how he knew and Armstrong said he overheard his parents talking about it. “And you did nt care to ask dem?” Rikky asked. “Dey are not saying any tin 2 me”, Armstrong replied. Knowing Rikky very well, the one who would question you to get all details asked again “And the doctors dnt even kw what is wrong wit you?” It was at this point that Armstrong affirmed that the doctors told his parents only. I am still shocked as to how 3 years was shortened to only a few weeks!

Now I began wondering, how I would feel or react if I overheard my parents talking about how much time I had left to live. Far worse, is not being told the reason. Was the reason kept away from Armstrong as a better option so he would not have to deal with knowing that his life would be end in 3 years? Did Armstrong deserve to be kept in the dark over a sensitive matter that affects his life? Armstrong was not a minor. I personally think he deserved to know. Don’t patients have the right to be well informed about their illness, possible treatments, likely outcomes, and unexpected outcomes? Why then was Armstrong kept in the dark? Why then would a doctor first discuss about a patient’s illness with their parents and such information will be kept away from the patient? My head is running wild with a thousand questions, but I will stop asking so much for even I do not have all the information regarding Armstrong’s ill health.

I have heard a couple other deaths of LGBTI persons, especially the young ones and I keep asking myself – Why so many deaths in recent times? Is the community fading away in death? Seeking answers to these questions I found out most of the LGBTI persons who had recently died were battling with some unattended health challenges. We have a lifestyle; a life of fun, partying, alcohol, drugs and sex! And when we are faced with a health challenge, it is hard to stay away from all the “happening moments” yet we fail to seek adequate health care. And in not seeking health care, we still indulge in all the risky behaviours further complicating the health challenges. “I have a reputation to uphold”, my friend will always say: A reputation to be socially accepted by friends and family, colleagues and classmates, I think. A reputation to belong. Are we too ashamed to seek health care because of the peculiarity of some of these health challenges? Or is it the stigmatizing and discriminatory attitudes of health workers? Perhaps, it is the health care providers’ lack of knowledge in dealing with some of these peculiar health challenges. Or fear of disclosure.

A survey in Benue State revealed that 47.6% of respondents treat sexually transmitted infections by visiting a Chemist/Pharmacist while 38.7% were self medicating by asking friends who had similar cases how they treated. The 2014 IBBSS reveals an increase in HIV prevalence from 13.5% to 22.9% among men who have sex with men.

So Anti-retroviral Therapy (ART) is free. Kudos! But we should also be concerned that there are unattended STIs especially among gay men. We need non-judgmental health care centers where one can walk in, talk about all their health challenges without fear of disclosure, stigma and discrimination, and most importantly, the repeal of the anti-gay law and other discriminatory laws. With the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, 2013, it limits the rights of all Nigerians to health. Need I enumerate the escalating rate of violence since the passage of the law? Rape, mob justice, eviction from homes, workplace and church, invasion of privacy leading to unlawful arrests and detention.

One may be excited about the plight of gay men, as regarding poor access to health care leading to death; a decline in the number of gay men in Nigeria or Africa at large, right? Also remember that gay men interact fully with the general population, both socially and sexually – fathers, uncles, brothers, cousins, best friends, husbands, boyfriends, clients, colleagues/employees even our clergy men. One Nigerian at risk means a risky Nigeria at large. To reduce this risk is to increase access to health care service provision and access to information. Health care service provision without the fear of disclosure unless with patient’s consent. All Nigerians are humans and as such entitled to all the human rights as contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

When one realizes the intersectionality of human rights, we begin to understand that taking away one right from an individual deprives them the opportunity to enjoy the other rights. It is worthy of note that the LGBTI community suffers multiple human rights violations. My right to life may be directly affected by my right to information as well as my right to health and peaceful assembly. It therefore means I should have all the information relevant to promoting my safety and security, as well as systems that ensure my health and general wellbeing in order for me to enjoy my right to life.

On a final note, I know that not every Nigerian is homophobic but I cannot defend you. I can only speak for myself. Why not stand up today and say “I am not homophobic, I am Nigerian!!!”