The Star (Nairobi)

30 November 2012

Kenya: Gays, Sex Workers Join Fight Against HIV/Aids

AS Kenya joins the rest of the world tomorrow in commemorating the annual World Aids Day, an occasion specially set aside to celebrate the achievements made in combating the deadly viral disease, a lot is still at stake if the zero infection target is to be realised.

While a lot has been done in ensuring access to life-prolonging drugs, HIV/Aids is yet to be wholly demystified to allow patients lead a dignified life, devoid of stigma.

Love or hate them, the gay and lesbian population is here to stay, and is part of the community that has continued to experience the wrath of a conservative society that is still grappling with the very thought.

"Why do we say pamoja tuangamize ukimwi (together let us eradicate HIV/Aids) and yet you are busy leaving out such a crucial group that is spreading this disease among people's sons and even husbands," poses John Mathenge, the national co-ordinator of the Kenya Sex Workers Alliance (KeSWA), a non-governmental organisation whose location cannot be disclosed for what Mathenge terms as security threat.

"It is not right to condemn homosexuals, especially if we want to get to zero status," Mathenge says.

UNAIDS is expressing optimism that 2013 will create the opportunity for the realisation of the beginning of the end of Aids, as more HIV positive personnel continue to be put on treatment, while efforts are being made to prevent mother-to-child transmission rates.

Back home, a minority group that has suffered in silence due to a harsh cultural environment that is more rigid to what it views as foreign concepts has broken ranks with the old order and is now vocal over what it wants to see being done.

Moving with speed to ensure equal enjoyment of the goodies that have come with the implementation of the new constitution, KeSWA is finalising tomorrow's plans of engaging in clean up campaigns, among other celebrations, in solidarity with other patients and victims.

Though Mathenge has remained cautious and tight-lipped on the exact venue for his group's activities, he says more people are beginning to gain courage to be seen in public and declare their sexual orientation.

"We cannot say where we shall hold our activities tomorrow, as this can lead to spontaneous attacks from the public that continues to propagate violence against us," he says.

An estimated 1.2 million Kenyans are HIV positive, yet only 400,000 can access the life-prolonging ARVs. Though no clear statistics exist on the number of HIV positive among homosexuals, the 2011 UNAIDS fact sheet, number of new infections in adults has gone down from a high 2.4 million in 2009 to 1.8 million.

The new constitutional order empowers the public to demand for their rights.

"I know the Bill of Rights has a requirement for everyone to access healthcare; the constitution empowers all Kenyans and treats them all as equal under the law," says Mathenge.

He is calling on leaders to exercise caution and restraint in their rhetoric, and is thus appealing to law enforcers to rein in politicians who propagate hate speech against the gay community.

Mathenge knew his HIV status 11 years ago when he went for Voluntary Counselling and Testing services. The devastating news was so heavy a blow to take, having lost two of his elder sisters under similar circumstances.

"The eventual stigma and discrimination were so tough for me to bear, given that I was being faced with three unfortunate scenarios," he says candidly, and appeals to the public not to stereotype him as gay. "Look at me as HIV positive just like any other victim, and then accord me equal treatment if we are to end this societal problem."

The three characteristics that define Mathenge include being HIV positive, gay and a male sex worker; traits he proudly says have strengthened his call to fight for the right and recognition of his peers as equal partners in accessing health and other services with fellow Kenyans.

"A group of us came together and formed an association of men having sex with men [MSM], to support one another and advocate for our rights," Mathenge, who is visibly busy throughout the interview, explained.

Flanked by three other men - two Kenyans and a foreigner - and scores of women who made occasional stopovers during the interview, Mathenge maintained his assertive stand on the need to recognise the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender initiative in Kenya.

With great multitasking skills, Mathenge remained calm as he attended to all of his demands; shooting a documentary with his colleagues, responding to both frequent interruptions for clarity from his peers and answering fielded questions about his initiatives.

Although there is no clear record of LGBTI community in Kenya, Mathenge says about 140,000 continue to perform their duties in Nairobi's central business district alone.

Out of the new HIV infection rates being reported, 15.5 and 14.5 per cent are by MSM and sex workers respectively; figures that Mathenge says can be minimised if more awareness is conducted among its members and beyond.

"Before condemning us and wishing that we never existed, take time to think about who our clients are," he says.

Numerous reports have pointed at family men who engage with male sex workers, with rising cases of homosexuals among the young age.

UNAIDS 2011 fact sheet indicates that the number of persons accessing VCT services have increased.

The former National Aids Control Council chairperson, Prof Miriam Were, says there's need for concerted efforts to fight HIV/Aids and realise a zero status of a disease that has claimed more than 30 million lives since it was discovered 30 years ago.

She says one of the ways of moving towards zero - the theme for this year's celebrations - will involve putting into effect the Abuja Declaration, which compelled all member states to dedicate 15 per cent of their annual budget to the health sector.

"Let us not ever get complacent, for as long as the problem is there, we are still at war with the scourge, and the acceleration to reduce the infections is needed," she says.

Were says one strategy that Kenya could adopt in fighting the menace will involve the use of people living with the virus in efforts to promote safe practices, awareness campaigns using the affected population and male circumcision.

Mathenge, who harbours political ambitions in future, is now making a passionate appeal to politicians to court them and support their activities.

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