HIV prevention jeopardised by call for arrest of gays

Gay Kenyans will be driven further underground and away from HIV prevention, treatment and care services following a recent call by Prime Minister Raila Odinga for a nationwide crackdown on homosexuals, activists say.

Addressing a rally in Nairobi on November 28, Odinga ordered the police to arrest and bring criminal charges against anyone found engaging in sex with someone of the same gender. He added that the country’s constitution made it clear that homosexual activity was not tolerated.

David Kuria, chair of the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya, said the prime minister’s remarks will negatively impact the government’s efforts to include the country’s gay population in HIV prevention programmes. For example, activists warned that few would be willing to participate in a government survey — due to start in December — that aims to draw on responses from the country’s gay population to inform HIV programming for men who have sex with men (MSM). Activists said potential respondents would be too fearful of being targeted by the authorities.

“Kenya has made tremendous headway in terms of involving men who have sex with men in HIV and AIDS prevention and such remarks coming from the prime minister will erode the gains already made,” said Kuria. “These remarks not only increase the possibility of [homophobic] attacks but will also interrupt treatment programmes — how do you go for treatment when you are a marked man?”

“We cannot put a dent in HIV spread by segregating one group,” he added.

Following the release last week of positive results from a clinical trial that tested the efficacy of taking a daily dose of antiretroviral drugs to prevent HIV in MSM, Kuria told IRIN/PlusNews he feared that in countries like Kenya, where homosexuality is criminalized, MSM may not benefit from the new HIV prevention method.

MSM are considered one of Kenya’s most at-risk populations in terms of HIV risk. According to the Kenya HIV Prevention Response and Modes of Transmission Analysis, 2008, MSM and prisoners account for 15.2 percent of all new HIV infections annually.

Peter Cherutich, head of prevention programmes at the National AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections Control Programme (NASCOP), said Odinga’s remarks would not affect plans to involve gay people in their programmes.

“What he said has nothing to do with what we do and we will continue offering HIV prevention services,” he told IRIN/PlusNews.

Homophobia is widespread in Kenya, but this is the first time such a senior political figure has openly called for legal action against homosexuals. In October, a cabinet minister who called for tolerance towards gays was urged to resign for promoting “un-African” culture.

Joseph Musili, a local pastor, said he fully backed the prime minister. “I am happy, but it took him too long; this is something he should have ordered a long time ago because you can’t allow things like homosexuality under the pretext of human rights and expect to have a moral society,” he said.

Kenya’s National HIV/AIDS Strategic Plan for 2010/2013 recognises that stigma is a limitation to service provision to groups like MSM. “Many service providers find it difficult to provide non-stigmatizing services to clients perceived to be practicing illegal behavior,” it states.

Dedan Warui, a 24-year-old Nairobi resident said Odinga’s statements would only worsen stigma.

“The problem is people will pretend they are not [gay] and it is that pretence which is most dangerous because it is stigma by another name, and what has dragged HIV prevention back has always been stigma,” Warui said. “When it comes to saving lives, the law must take a back seat.”

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