Decriminalising homosexuality in Kenya will help reduce HIV

In Kenya, stigma and discrimination against sexual minorities, particularly men who have sex with men and transgender people, is putting them at increased risk of HIV.

In Kenya, stigma and discrimination against sexual minorities, particularly men who have sex with men and transgender people, is putting them at increased risk of HIV.

On 17 May, the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, activists around the world will call on policymakers and opinion leaders to help bring an end to the violence and discrimination experienced by those who do not conform to majority sexual and gender norms.

Public opinion plays a major role in influencing the attitude towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people (LGBTI) in many African countries since same-sex sexual relationships are considered repugnant and against the culture.

Antagonism against this community by Kenyan society has extended to health facilities, where LGBTI people are often treated with disrespect and exposed to humiliation and sometimes physical violence. As a result, LGBTI people often fear visiting health facilities, and ultimately this is leading to higher concentrations of the HIV epidemic among this community.

Experiencing discrimination

Gilbert* is a sex worker who has sex with men. He tested positive for HIV in 2008 and the doctor told him he needed to start antiretroviral (ARV) medication immediately, but due to the hostility he experienced that day, he decided not to attend the hospital again. “Despite the threats from the health provider that I would die if I didn’t take the medicine, I chose not to take them so I would never have another encounter with those medical practitioners,” he says, adding that he has protected sex with his clients.

He recounts that when he told the health worker he is gay, her attitude abruptly changed. Gilbert says: “She exclaimed ‘What a waste of resources!’ in her mother tongue, not knowing I well understood the dialect.”

Gilbert was made to wait for several hours before receiving attention while staff kept glancing suspiciously at him. “I can’t even remember what she told me because I wasn’t listening to her; I never went to the pharmacy for the ARV as she had instructed but left vowing to never go back,” he says.

Gilbert has never taken the ARV medication but works hard on his diet to maintain his health. Though Gilbert claims that he has never even had flu since he tested positive, he says that should he fall ill at any time, he would rather pay for a private doctor than visit the free public hospitals.

According to the Kenya AIDS Response Progress Report 2014 HIV prevalence among men having sex with men is estimated at 18.2 per cent, almost three times more than the rate in the general population. Sexual minorities need health services as much as the general population and it is their human right. Denying them access to services or delaying them so they give up only leads to an increase in new HIV infections.

Kenya resists international pressure

Homosexuality is not only considered taboo in Kenya but is also a criminal offense that attracts a jail term of 14 years. Though Kenya has been a member of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights for the last 43 years, in 2012 the government categorically declined to decriminalise same sex unions, even after international pressure, arguing that public opinion is strongly against legalisation.

This stance means that many non-profit organisations who get funding to provide HIV services and support to LGBTI people, are not comfortable being associated with this criminalised group of people directly.

A coordinator working for a faith-based non-profit organisation (who requested anonymity) confided that they get funding from an international body to work with LGBTI people but do very little with the community. “I find this so ironical but I can’t question it since I must shield my job,” he said.

Double discrimination

People from sexual minorities who are living with HIV suffer a double discrimination, but LGBTI people are human beings whose health and dignity should be respected. Health researcher Dr Helen Barsulai says: “Health providers should be on the forefront to ensure that LGBTI people have enough prevention information in order to decrease new HIV infections.”

The rallying cry of the post 2015 international development agenda is ‘leave no one behind’ but so far the newly proposed sustainable development goals do not go far enough to protect the rights of minority groups.

The health goal in particular needs to have stronger, specific language to ensure everyone, including those groups most vulnerable to HIV, such as sexual minorities, has access to the essential HIV services and healthcare they need. To tackle this, the International HIV/AIDS Alliance has just launched Write Us In, a new global campaign to ensure equitable access to healthcare for LGBTI people.

*Name changed to protect identity

This story was first published on Gay Star News