From Grassroots to Government, Fighting HIV in Kenya
An Interview with David Kuria
(Photo: Tom Zuback)
March 1, 2011—Ishtar MSM, a grassroots organization in Kenya that provides HIV/AIDS outreach to men who have sex with men (MSM), has received two community awards from amfAR’s MSM Initiative. As a member of the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK), Ishtar MSM is one of several groups involved in the fight for LGBT rights in Kenya. GALCK Chairman David Kuria spoke with amfAR about how the fight against discrimination goes hand in hand with the fight against HIV.
What is the climate like now for MSM in Kenya?
The climate is ambiguous in some senses, because we have a very progressive law that was just passed as part of the new constitution, which guarantees many rights such as access to health and privacy. At the same time, there is a mood among the public that is really hostile to gay and lesbian issues. But we also have a very progressive health department that wants to grant the MSM community access to treatment and prevention strategies. We have yet to figure out exactly where we are in view of all these changes and factors.
What needs to be done to improve the response to HIV among MSM in Kenya?
One of the key components is an appreciation of the human rights concerns surrounding the HIV response among MSM. Focusing only on biomedical strategies—such as condoms and lubricants—is not enough. The fact is that MSM are still criminalized in most countries in Africa. This means that many of the prevention strategies become criminalized by extension, or unavailable. Issues of criminalization, of stigma and discrimination, need to be addressed. That will comprise a comprehensive response to HIV.
How is Ishtar MSM using its community award from amfAR?
Ishtar is GALCK’s lead organization addressing the HIV response among MSM. With support from amfAR, it is providing information on safe sex and prevention supplies like lubricants and condoms. Also, at the coalition level, we are engaging in advocacy with government and health service providers, so that MSM who do not access services from us can get them from various centers around the country.
Why is access to information and services so critical for MSM?
The government does provide information on prevention of HIV, but it is never targeted at MSM. You never get a leaflet on HIV prevention or treatment that is MSM-specific. The only people who provide this kind of outreach are GALCK, through Ishtar MSM, and one other NGO. So you’re talking about a country of more than 39 million people where only two groups provide HIV services to MSM.
You recently announced that you are running for the Kenyan Senate. If you win, you will be one of only two “out” MSM politicians in all of Africa. Do you think your candidacy will help ease stigma?
Absolutely. I’m quite positive that it will. One reason I am running is to grant LGBT people greater visibility. It’s important that we are seen doing different things—basically, going beyond a stereotype—and addressing different forms of stigma and discrimination in society. People will begin to understand our challenges better, but also appreciate that we can move beyond ourselves and address their issues as well.