By Peter Anaminyi
In a recent address last month to a national symposium on HIV/Aids targeting homosexuals, lesbians and sex workers in Kenya, Hon Esther Murugi, a Minister in the Office of the President in Kenya, told the participants that “We need to learn to live with men who have sex with other men… we are in the 21st century and things have changed.”
She went on to say that homosexuals and sex workers were an independent constituency and should not be stigmatised and called for statistics to enable the government to develop a policy to cut prevalence rates among the group.
The reaction of religious leaders was predictable, virulent, violent and swift.
The Organising Secretary of the Council of Imams and Preachers described her utterances as “satanic and contrary to African culture” and added that “God in his holy books (Quran and Bible) cursed homosexuality and directed us to fight it.’ He went on to urge the President and the Prime Minister to take stern action against the minister. His comments were supported by the Chairman of the Kenya National Muslim Advisory Council.
Not to be left behind more than 74 churches under the aegis of the Federation of Evangelical Indigenous Christian Churches of Kenya petitioned the President to sack the minister over her remarks and threatened to hold public demonstrations if this was not done. They warned that the Ministers statement would invite God’s wrath.
However a week or so after the minister’s statement, the Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs added what must have come as a shocker to some members of the religious community: the Government was not going to discriminate against gays in the provision of services. It’s against the new constitution. What people do in their bedrooms should be a private matter.
Homophobia however is not unique to Africa, as the recent suicide ofTyler Clementi, the 18 year old Rutgers University freshman who felt he would rather commit suicide than have people know that he is gay, has shown.
Kenya Government statistics show that over 30 percent of all new HIV infections are generated by commercial sex workers, homosexuals and drug users. All these groups are engaged in sexual and other behaviors that are currently criminalised. An HIV prevention policy therefore that assumes that 30 percent of the problem to be solved does not or should not exist would be one that is based on wishful thinking.
Almost 30 years after the first incidence of HV was reported, 35 out of 52 African countries or almost 70 percent of them were unable to report any information about gay populations to the United Nations General Assembly Session of HIV/AIDS (UNGASS) this year.
Again whereas the Centre for Disease Control has found that the unadjusted probability per coital act of transmitting HIV is 80 times higher for receptive anal intercourse than for vaginal intercourse, and that the rate of new HIV diagnoses among men who have sex with
men (MSM) is more than 44 times that of other men and more than 40 times that of women, the risk of homosexual behaviour in relation to HIV in Sub Saharan Africa has been measured in only 14 out of 118 studies reported between 1984-2007.
No responsible government can allow this state of wilful ignorancev and inaction to prevail. The Kenya government is therefore pursuing an evidence based policy in addressing the issue of HIV and sexual minorities through it’s National Aids Strategic Plan. This plan is a product of the Kenya National Aids Council whose corporate members include all the main Christian religious denominations in Kenya who are represented on its board by the National Council of Churches in Kenya, as well as the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims, and the national associations representing all employers, NGO’s and women organisations. It is not possible to constitute a membership that is wider, stronger or more reflective of the state, civil society and religious interests.
The Plan fully embraces the gay community and organisations that have expertise in this area and commits the government to addressing the delicate and controversial issues of decriminalization and access to services. Significantly the plan states that Cutting across all
strategies will be a central focus on MARPs (Most at Risk Populations: gays, sex workers and injecting drug users) and vulnerable groups.
In compliance with its international human rights treaty obligations, the Kenya Government presented its second periodic report on compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 2005, to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, and cited the differences and conflicts within the Anglican Church and communion and the strong homophobic stance of the African Anglican Bishops as one of the factors it was considering in framing its policy towards same sex relations.
In response to a question as to whether it considered the criminalisation of homosexuality to be inconsistent with the Covenant’s non-discrimination clauses, Kenya’s Attorney General said that ‘The movement appeared to be towards tolerance, but the Government would watch the issue closely, particularly as the Anglican Church was currently struggling with the matter.’
However in response to calls this year for decriminalization of homosexuality by the US, France, Netherlands and 97 national international development organisations in Kenya, the UN reported that the Kenya government said it was ‘Committed to decriminalize them and combat discrimination, but facing serious social intolerance towards homosexuals’. And in its report to the United Nations General Assembly Session of HIV/AIDS this year, the Government recommended the revision and harmonization of health and criminal laws ‘so that all the issues of HIV and AIDS that are affecting the MARPs (Most at risk populations)… are addressed.’
The Anglican Church of Kenya is represented on the Kenya National Aids Council by the ational Council of Churches in Kenya. In fact the Anglican Church is the largest denominational member of this Council.
The violent attacks on Kenya’s minister are an indication of the fears African governments have about adopting evidence based approaches in dealing with HIV and AIDS due to culture and religion. They are also an indication of the inability of some churches to distinguish between moral values that should guide their members and public policy that guides all. But how will Africa’s cultural values and religion exist if its people are dead from the consequences of taking the same values and beliefs uncritically? Kenya is prepared to work with any individual or organisation, local or international to address to the human rights and health issues of its gay communities and other sexual minorities.
Peter Anaminyi is the National Director/CEO Feba Radio Kenya and formerly a Manager with the National Bank of Kenya and Assistant Inspector of State Corporations, Office of the President, Kenya. He holds an MA in Management from the University of Leeds, in England an M.Sc in International Banking and Financial Studies from Herriot Watt University in Scotland and an MA in human rights law and diplomacy from the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the viewsof Feba Radio, Kenya.