Friday, 1 October 2010

MARPS Symposium In Mombasa

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HIV/AIDS Vulnerable Groups Meet To Chart Way Forward

By Denis Nzioka

The first ever symposium for Most At Risk Populations (MARPS) was today held in Mombasa to enable groups whose sexual behaviour puts them at the greatest risk of being infected with HIV to speak out on issues affecting them.

The unique forum, also the first to be held in East and Sub Saharan Africa identified the primary MARPS as Female Commercial Sex Workers (CSWs), Men having Sex with Men (MSM) or injectable/intravenous drug users.

Representatives from these groups told the two day consultative meeting that it is critical to incorporate them in the planning and implementation on HIV/Aids for such programs to succeed.

MSM Representative Mansoor Mondo said sidelining the most vulnerable groups in the fight against the pandemic by government and other stakeholders would only derail gains that have been made in reducing infection levels.

"Instead of criminalizing our sexual orientation, society should embrace us and help us promote safe sex to protect our people since most of those who sample our services are also respectable members of the society", he added.

He urged the government to work with development partners to promote condom use in the country, including distributing free dispensers at entertainment joints and other venues so that the run away infection rates are reigned in.

"Sex is a necessity, and telling a sexually active person to abstain may be futile, thereby society should be encouraged to always play it safe by using protection whenever having sex", he advised.

Mondo said societal intolerance to prostitution, gay relationships among other practices considered unafrican or against nature and religion has
entrenched stigma and discrimination, forcing members to practice in secrecy.

"This frustrates any efforts to reach this vulnerable groups as no member is willing to come out and declare his sexual orientation for fear of being shunned by society", he added.

Speaking during the forum that was also attended by Special Programs Minister Esther Murugi Mathenge, Mondo said members continue to face
numerous challenges, among them harassment from both police and city council personnel , assault, unprotected rape ordeals and other sexual violations in addition to stints in cells.

"When they find us on the streets they are not only judgmental, but also beat, arrest and sometimes rape us without any protection or lubrication,
and later throw us in jail hence interfering with our chosen profession which is our lifeline", he complained.

Mondo who is also an official of a gay support group, SNOP clinic appealed to the government in collaboration with non governmental organizations
(NGO's) to establish friendly dedicated medical centres to cater for the health needs of these vulnerable groups.

He said health workers in public hospitals were hostile and need to be specially trained to handle the medical needs of the most vulnerable groups
of HIV/Aids instead of denying them treatment demanding one to bring their partners or spouses.

"Some of our members do not have permanent partners, and being denied treatment until one brings his partner is unfair", he said, adding that dedicated health centres would ensure medical care can be accessed without any questions.

Mondo who said has worked as a MSM for the last eight years in major urban towns in the country expressed optimism that the forum will provide an opportunity to bring most at risk groups on board the fight against the HIV/Aids pandemic.

A commercial sexual worker Lucy Melany from Nairobi said programs targeting them should be inclusive of service providers so that their input is taken on board instead of dispensing tailor made programs which are ineffective.

She also urged the government to establish an incentive scheme for these vulnerable groups where they can access soft loans to be able to engage in alternative sources of income and stop working the streets.

Melany said eight out of ten CSW's would like to stop working but lacked an alternative, saying an NGO called OKOA JAHAZI that is helping women out of the oldest profession by providing them with soft loans for alternatives has been recording some successes.

She said most of those working the streets were also mothers, wives and community members whose objective is to put food on the table and meet their other basic human needs.

According to the National Aids Control council (NACC) these are also groups that are in conflict with the law, which makes it difficult to reach them with programs tailored for the general population.

Deputy Director, Co ordination and Support, Dr Sobbie Mulindi estimates that 33 per cent of all annual new infections in Kenya are being contributed by this group.

He added that the symposium on most at risk populations is one of the first efforts, since the launch of the third kenya national aids strategic plan (KNASP 111) to bring technical, programming experts and advocates together to chart the way forward on national programming for MARPS.

"We hope the symposium will develop a critical and necessary steps to move forward a national program for Marps which is hoped to feed into the prevention summit", he added.

The forum is expected to bring together Marps, service providers and advocates to deliberate on critical issues around programming for the most at risk groups, review existing information on Marps and identify gaps that can be addressed through focused research, describe existing package of services for Marps, usage data and identify gaps.

The forum will also develop a framework for delivery of services for Marps in conflict with the law including mechanism for co coordinating and monitoring on marps programming among others.

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