By Mabvuto Banda; Editing by Janet Lawrence
LILONGWE - Malawi must recognise the rights of its gay population to be able to step up its fight against AIDS, a senior government official said on Tuesday.
In a first public government comment on homosexuality in the conservative African country, Mary Shawa, secretary for nutrition, HIV and AIDS in the president's office, said Malawi would not be able to fight the virus without giving gays access to HIV and AIDS services.
"There is a need to incorporate a human rights approach in the delivery of HIV and AIDS services to such risk groups like men who have sexual intercourse with men if we have to fight AIDS," she said, opening a two-day conference on HIV/AIDS.
The Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP), an organisation working with homosexuals, said the HIV prevalence rate was at 25 percent among the country's gays.
"The voices and the rights of these people are critical in the fight against AIDS," said Gift Trapensi, head of the CEDEP.
AIDS has killed more than 800,000 people in Malawi since the first case was reported in 1985 and left more than one million orphans.
Preventative campaigns have helped reduce the overall prevalence rate to 12 percent from 14 percent, and reduced the number of people dying from HIV related illnesses by 70 percent.
Three years ago the Anglican Church sent pro-gay rights Bishop Nick Henderson to head a diocese in rural Malawi. The congregation did not accept him and protests led to the death of a church member.