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Keeping HIV in check

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LERIBE – Desperate to curb the world’s second highest HIV prevalence, the Lesotho government is finding allies from very unlikely quarters – amongst the sex workers and the LGBTI community it once shunned.
Like much of Africa, minus South Africa, Lesotho has clung to its conservative and hostile attitudes towards sex workers and the lesbians, gays, bi-sexual, transgender and intersex people (LGBTI).
The Maseru government has laws – backed by uncompromising tradition and customs – that prohibit sex work and same-sex relations as unnatural or perverse and punishable by imprisonment.
But a pandemic causing about 5 000 deaths annually in a population of a little more than two million people appears to have pushed the authorities into embracing sex workers and LGBTI people because they are a vital cog in any strategy to combat HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

“We do not necessarily observe what the law says … our concern is to control the spread of HIV,” Lefu Manyokole, the principal secretary at the Ministry of Health told thepost this week.
Put differently, what the senior bureaucrat means is that cooperation with sex workers, LGBTI and their organisations does not mean a softening of attitudes or change of policy by the government towards these groups.
That is why there is no talk or even suggestion in government corridors of scrapping the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act and the Penal Code, the two laws that criminalise same-sex relations and sex work.

Rather the move by the government is inspired by two hard realities. Firstly, there is evidence aplenty from across Africa and beyond that no anti-HIV and AIDS programme will ever achieve much without involving those groups in society most vulnerable to infection by the virus and the opportunistic diseases that thrive because of it.
In Lesotho as in in other countries in the region, sex workers and LGBTI people are among the most at risk of infection by HIV and using the country’s anti-prostitution and homosexuality laws to exclude them from projects to combat the virus could be self-defeating.
Secondly, there is the small matter of cash. Or as some might prefer to say, he who pays the piper calls the tune.
Quite a huge chunk of resources that go into fighting HIV and AIDS in Lesotho are handouts by western governments, international aid agencies and non-governmental organisations that won’t fund any programme that discriminate against groups such as LGBTI.

Maseru must play ball if it is to win international funding for its effort against HIV and AIDS.
This is exactly the point Manyokole was making when he said: “Donors like EGPAF (Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation) have sent us funds so that we cater for key populations like this one (sex workers and LGBTI).”
The Washington-based foundation and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) have together with some local groups partnered with the government in programmes to combat the virus.
“We are aware that culturally they (sex workers and LGBTI) are not accepted but there is nothing we can do about that. We are comfortable working with them as long as we control the spread of HIV,” said Manyokole.

But whatever the philosophical, religious, legal, cultural and other arguments regarding the place of sex workers and LGBTI people in Basotho society today or their treatment by the government outside the campaign against HIV and AIDS one thing is becoming increasingly clear from the anecdotal evidence available.
And it is that the Maseru administration’s decision to set aside its puritanical views towards sex workers and LGBTI people in order to attract funding and other help to eradicate HIV was a hardnosed move that looks likely to pay off handsomely in the long run.

The fruits of that pragmatic step are already starting to become visible on the ground. Take for example the story of the Maputsoe Wellness Centre.
The centre or clinic, which the UNFPA and government health officials toured Thursday last week to check on its work, is now a key facility in the effort to raise HIV and AIDS awareness amongst a host of vulnerable groups.
But it shouldn’t have been operating by now. Out of cash, the centre should have closed shop by the end of last year were it not for the UNFPA which chipped in with funding to keep its doors open.

Located in the border town of Maputsoe, the centre was established in 2016 after realisation that sex workers and LGBTI people, truck drivers and other groups were at an increased risk of contracting HIV.
However, because of stigmatisation and rejection by a society that disapproves of their way of living, they had little or no access to treatment and prevention programmes.
Today the centre is a haven for sex workers and LGBTI people and many other high-risk groups where they can find vital help on how to prevent infection or get the life-saving antiretroviral (ARV) drugs for those already living with HIV.
According to site coordinator at the centre, ’Manthatiseng Masiu, it offers HIV testing and counselling, TB screening, antiretroviral services, pre and post-exposure prophylaxis treatment as well as family-planning advice.
While help is given to all who seek or need it, Masiu said the clinic works with a priority list top of which are truck drivers.
She said: “First are the truck drivers because they are sex workers’ clients and at times, they are also sex workers themselves, second are men who have sex with men and then the community that is based across the border (in Khomo-lia-oela and Ha-Mokotisa).”
Determined to reach more people at risk of infection, the centre also runs what it calls the moonlight programme where it visits HIV hotspots during the evenings to talk to revelers at the clubs and sex workers about HIV and AIDS.

“We identify hotspots between Peka and Hlotse …. bars, pubs, clubs or big late-night events where we can access larger groups of people for HIV/AIDS testing or counselling,” said Masiu.
The moonlight programme, which utilises a mobile clinic donated by the EGPAF, can see up to 50 people being tested, counselled or educated about HIV in one night alone, Masiu said.
She added: “Most of the people assisted by the centre have had their viral load supressed as a result of our special service offer.”
But even more encouraging is the fact some among the groups considered most at risk of infection are not sitting back waiting for people like Masiu and her colleagues at the anti-HIV and AIDS clinic to deliver help on their lap.

They are taking it upon themselves to publicise the work of the Maputsoe clinic and to encourage others to visit it to get tested or access treatment.
They are called Champions of the wellness centre.
’Maletsatsi Sehloho is one of those doing their bit to encourage people to visit the clinic for testing or advice on how to live with HIV and AIDS.

A transgendered man, affectionately known among her peers and community as Easy, Sehloho said the clinic’s friendly and non-judgmental handling of people was its biggest draw-card that has seen more people among the LGBTI community coming out to get help.
Sehloho, who also works with the clinic’s moonlight programme, said in a month she refers at least 20 people to the clinic for help.
She said during the moonlight programmes, they have been able to reach out to people from the LGBTI community who need help but have stayed away from health institutions out of fear of the resentment and stigma against them at most public health institutions in the country.

“We need more services such as these in the country,” said Sehloho.
She added: “We cannot afford to have more of our people being infected with HIV because when they get infected it does not affect the LGBTI community alone, it affects the whole country.”
She is right. The HIV and AIDS burden confronting Lesotho requires all hands on the deck whether sex worker, LGBTI, heterosexual or not.

Rose Moremoholo

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Police hunt former minister

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THE police have launched a hunt for former police minister, Lepota Sekola, who is suspected of involvement in stock theft.
Police want to arrest Sekola in connection with two cattle carcasses that were found at his grandfather’s funeral in Borokhoaneng three weeks ago.

During the initial interview, Sekola had insisted that the cows belonged to his late grandfather who had kept them in South Africa for better pastures.

The police didn’t arrest him at that time because investigations were still in the early stages. Further investigations have however led the police to believe that the animals were stolen from South Africa.

But when they were ready for the arrest, Sekola could not be found at his home or on his phone.

Police say Sekola will be charged with unlawful possession and illegal importation of two cows from South Africa.

The National Stock Theft Coordinator, Senior Superintendent Mapesela Klaass, told thepost last night that they “have completed investigations but he (Sekola) is nowhere to be seen”.

“We cannot get him on his mobile phones,” S/Supt Klaass said, adding that the police have been “visiting his home but he is not there”.

“His family members are aware that we are looking for him,” he said.

S/Supt Klaass said they are continuing with their search and as soon as they find him, they are going to drag him to the courts.

He said the police suspect the cows were brought from South Africa to be slaughtered for Sekola’s grandfather’s funeral.

Police sources told thepost that one of the cows had new branding while another had nothing. Both had holes on the ears that signalled that they used to have ear tags.

Majara Molupe

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Magistrate saves WILSA boss

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A Maseru magistrate, Nthabiseng Moopisa, this week stayed the criminal prosecution of Advocate ’Mamosa Mohlabula who is accused of tax evasion, money laundering and corruption.

In her application Advocate Mohlabula, who is the director of Women and Law in Southern Africa (WILSA), said the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) should not charge her pending finalisation of her tax evasion case.

Advocate Mohlabula is out on bail after she was formally charged with tax evasion in July last year.

She told Magistrate Moopisa that the DPP, Advocate Hlalefang Motinyane, was wrong to have agreed with the Director General of the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offences (DCEO) to bring charges against her.

“In my viewpoint, the DCEO cannot be heard to charge me in relation to matters already seized with this Honourable Court,” she said in an affidavit.

She also said there is a pending civil case in the High Court in which the DCEO’s abuse of power is referenced, saying the precise way the case is handled will depend “on the way an alleged offence comes to the light”.

“Before that pending case is finalised, DCEO has no jurisdiction to detail me to court over isolated phenomenon of tax evasion and or over grievances of former employees of WILSA,” she said.
Advocate Mohlabula was charged together with the WILSA’s chief accounting officer.

She argued that it was WILSA that was being investigated, not individuals, further saying that was “a significant safeguard that the DCEO was impartial from an objective viewpoint”.

“To exclude any legitimate doubt in this respect the DCEO returned the items it seized from WILSA,” she said.

“This was a realistic and practical step towards administering justice and to avoid premature embarrassment to the management of WILSA.”

She said the Board of Trustees of WILSA were sent briefing notes which in certain respects reflected that the DCEO returned the properties of WILSA without warning them that they were suspects.

“In any event, we proceeded to fashion our arguments before the High Court. There was, and could be, no evidence to back up the decision of the DCEO to apply for the search warrant,” she said.

Advocate Mohlabula said before they took the matter to the High Court, she cooperated with the DCEO and it conducted an inquiry into the alleged crimes.

“Now that the matter is pending before the High Court, there is no more reason for the DCEO to remand me before the pending cases are finalised,” she said.

Staff Reporter

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Mphaka barred from ABC deputy’s race

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THE All Basotho Convention (ABC) has barred former Government Secretary Moahloli Mphaka and three others from contesting for the deputy leader’s position at an elective conference set for this week.
The three are Kefeletsoe Mojela, Katleho Molelle, and Lekhetho Mosito.

Mosito was an MP who was appointed Defence Minister for a day and removed the following day during Dr Moeketsi Majoro’s premiership.
The elective conference is set to be held at the Leqele High School hall this weekend.

A circular from the ABC said the three did not qualify to enter the race because they had not held any positions in the party’s committees.

The decision to bar the three is reminiscent of the same tactics that saw former leader Thomas Thabane block Professor Nqosa Mahao from contesting for the party’s deputy leader’s position.
Professor Mahao subsequently walked away and formed the Basotho Action Party (BAP).

A weakened ABC has never recovered from that split.

Mphaka and his colleagues were vying for the deputy leader’s position until they were stopped in their tracks by the circular which was issued out on Monday this week.
Dr Pinkie Manamolela is the current deputy leader.

She was plucked from the women’s league to replace Dr Majoro who had resigned from the national executive committee after losing the leadership race to Nkaku Kabi in 2022.

There is a high chance that the four could drag the ABC to court to assert their right to contest. The legal wrangles will likely destabilise the party that is still smarting from a thorough thrashing in general elections held in October 2022.

Mphaka this week told thepost that he will challenge the decision to block him in the courts of law.
“They are crazy people,” Mphaka said.

“I will not allow this to happen,” he said.

“I have already instructed my lawyers to launch an urgent application in the High Court to challenge the decision before Friday this week.”

He complained that it was not clear why the party had decided to kick him out of the race after he spent a lot of time and resources campaigning.

Mphaka said the national executive committee “usually allows members to contest for positions without considering whether they were ever in the constituency committees or not”.

The contenders in the race are former Water Minister Samonyane Ntsekele, ex-Police MP Lehlohonolo Moramotse, former Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Leshoboro Mohlajoa, and Maseru Star Taxi Association member Sekhonyana Mosenene.

A member of the national executive committee told thepost that “many of us support Mphaka and Kefeletsoe at all costs”.

“We were dismayed when we saw the circular removing the duo from the race,” he said.

He said many ABC members were rallying behind Mphaka because “he has been campaigning even before everyone could start”.

“They know he has lots of followers.”

He said it is unfair that Mosenene has been allowed to run but he has never held any position in any constituency except that he represented his taxi association in the ABC national executive committee.
“Why has he been allowed to contest yet he is just like Mphaka and Kefeletsoe?”

He complained that Sekhonyana, while representing taxi operators in the committee, was eventually made the deputy party spokesman despite not being in any constituency committee after ’Matebatso Doti resigned from the position.

“Mphaka was chosen by the party to lead the 2022 elections campaign teams and develop a party manifesto,” he said.

“He was allowed to do all that without being involved in any party structures.”

The party’s spokesman Montoeli Masoetsa declined to comment.

Dr Manamolela told thepost that “the decision was not made by the party’s national executive committee”.

“I do not want to talk much …but it is not true that the party’s NEC decided to remove Mphaka and Kefeletsoe”.

Kabi could not be reached for comment.

Nkheli Liphoto

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