Kenya must protect human rights to attain zero HIV infections

Human rights activists in Kenya are calling for a stop to ongoing anti-gay comments made by public figures in the country.

Human rights activists in Kenya are calling for a stop to ongoing anti-gay comments made by public figures in the country.

Civil society organisations, led by the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), are asking President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government for: “An immediate cessation of State-sanctioned homophobia witnessed in the inflammatory statements associated with high-ranking government officials.”

Several political and religious leaders in Kenya have recently called for stern actions to be taken against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people (LGBTI). Condemning the LGBTI community, Kenya Muslims National Advisory Council (KEMNAC) chairman Sheikh Juma Ngao said such behaviors should not be tolerated in Kenya. The religious leader also criticised a groundbreaking decision on 24 April by a Kenyan High court judge, who ruled in that members of the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission could formally register their organisation.

“We condemn in the highest way possible gay and lesbianism in Kenya and any other act of men having sex with men. The judge who granted this group authority to be registered as an organisation should have been sacked and we request other judges not to emulate such because he failed to adhere to African tradition and cultural practices,” said Sheikh Ngao.

HIV in Kenya

According to aidsmap, Kenya has the fourth-largest HIV epidemic in the world. In 2012, an estimated 1.6 million people were living with HIV and roughly 57,000 people died from AIDS-related illnesses.

Although awareness of HIV and AIDS is comparatively high in Kenya, many people living with HIV face high levels of stigma and discrimination. And for those who are also sexual minorities they face a double stigma – which makes it even harder for them to access treatment.

The 2014 UNAIDS Kenya AIDS Response Progress Report states that HIV prevalence among men who have sex with men in Kenya is almost three times that of the general population. Sexual relations between men are illegal in Kenya and can carry a prison sentence of up to 21 years. According to the Human Rights Committee, in Kenya homosexuality is “largely considered to be a taboo and repugnant to cultural values and morality”. The committee recommends the state takes action to change such socially accepted attitudes.

Homophobic rhetoric increases stigma

The hostile stance taken by political and religious leaders only inflames high levels of stigma and discrimination towards men who have sex with men, as well as other members of the LGBTI community. Such injurious verbal attacks may cause people to go into hiding and deter them from seeking the HIV services they require, paving the way for new HIV infections.

Speaking to Key Correspondents, Ester Waweru, Kenya Human Rights Commission programme manager, said: “HIV continues to be a major national problem in Kenya. We cannot ignore the fact that a third of all new HIV infections are attributed to key populations, namely sex workers, men who have sex with men and people who inject drugs. It is in our public health interest for this country to reach out to these groups because they are part of our society.

“We are demanding for immediate reassurance of security and protection for key populations who are currently unable to access health services and adhere to programmes of HIV treatment due to concerns around their personal security and welfare.”

Mwaura Ngunjiri (not his real name) is a man who has sex with men. He is calling for all citizens including lesbians, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people to be treated with respect and dignity, as enshrined in the Kenya constitution (2010). The 32-year-old said: “The government should guarantee freedom and security to all Kenyans, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Constitutional rights

The Kenyan constitution guarantees access to the highest attainable quality of health services to all without discrimination as part of the rights and fundamental freedom under the Bill of Rights. Waweru added that the Ministry of Health should consistently endeavor to fulfill its obligation to key populations through the Kenya AIDS Strategic Framewor which states: “The success of the HIV response is dependent on protecting and promoting the rights of those who are socially excluded, marginalised and vulnerable.

Although Kenya has diverse religious and cultural positions, the government has an obligation to provide inclusive and effective services to all including sex workers, people who use drugs, men who have sex with men and people in prisons.

Criminalising men who have sex with men and the current inflammatory rhetoric stemming from the anti-homosexuality debates could mean those most at risk of HIV infection are too afraid to access services.

If the government is to achieve its national health outcomes clearly highlighted in policy documents such as Vision 2030, Kenya Health Policy, Kenya AIDS Strategic Framework and the Key Populations Policy, all Kenyans must be able to access health services without any fear of risking their lives.

See this photo story: life as a gay man in Kenya