In 1994, South Africa approved a constitution providing freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation. Other Southern African countries, including Botswana, Malawi, and Namibia, criminalize same-sex behavior. Men who have sex with men (MSM) have been shown to experience high levels of stigma and discrimination, increasing their vulnerability to negative health and other outcomes. This paper examines the relationship between criminalization of same-sex behavior and experiences of human rights abuses by MSM. It compares the extent to which MSM in peri-urban Cape Town experience human rights abuses with that of MSM in Gaborone, Botswana; Blantyre and Lilongwe, Malawi; and Windhoek, Namibia. In 2008, 737 MSM participated in a cross-sectional study using a structured survey collecting data regarding demographics, human rights, HIV status, and risk behavior. Participants accrued in each site were compared using bivariate and multivariate logistic regression. Encouragingly, the results indicate MSM in Cape Town were more likely to disclose their sexual orientation to family or healthcare workers and less likely to be black-mailed or feel afraid in their communities than MSM in Botswana, Malawi, or Namibia. However, South African MSM were not statistically significantly less likely experience a human rights abuse than their peers in cities in other study countries, showing that while legal protections may reduce experiences of certain abuses, legislative changes alone are insufficient for protecting MSM. A comprehensive approach with interventions at multiple levels in multiple sectors is needed to create the legal and social change necessary to address attitudes, discrimination, and violence affecting MSM.
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