Kenya: To Fight HIV & AIDS, Recognise Sex Workers

This Year’s World Aids Day was observed under the theme: “Getting to zero: zero new HIV infections. Zero discrimination. Zero Aids-related deaths”.

The theme is a rallying call for greater access to treatment for all and for governments to act more decisively in putting in place policies that enhance prevention and behaviour change.

Kenya has made great progress in taking the battle to HIV and Aids, bolstered by support from development partners, mainly the US Government.

But significant hurdles remain. Notably, large gaps in treatment coverage remain as only 500,000 are on life-sustaining treatment. And whereas prevention of mother-to-child prevention is now widely available, many babies are still born with the virus.

Wide gender gaps stick out, with women and children continuing to suffer the double tragedy of debilitating poverty and HIV/Aids.

Stigma surrounding HIV and Aids is a major obstacle to treatment, prevention, care and support. Many Kenyans view HIV and Aids as life-threatening and react to it in strong ways.

Some associate it with unconventional behaviour (such as homosexuality, drug addiction, prostitution or promiscuity) that are already stigmatised. What is needed is an environment where no one is ashamed to live with the virus.

The HIV prevalence in 2012 (15-49-year-olds) is estimated to be 6.3 per cent, a considerable reduction from the estimated 15 per cent in 2001.

However, the situation gets messier among sex workers, for whom the prevalence rate remains alarmingly high at 15-16 per cent.

Stigma and discrimination among key population segments often result in less opportunity to access healthcare. There are comparatively fewer medical facilities that focus on them.

For the country to get rid of HIV, there is a need for greater emphasis on men who have sex with men, intravenous drug-users, long-distance truck drivers and the fisher-folk around Lake Victoria. Unless this is done, there’s a big risk that the gains made so far in the fight against HIV and Aids could be lost.

Some non-governmental organisations have been involved in empowering socially disadvantaged women and girls to make intelligent choices for themselves and their families. The best example of such an organisation is the little known Her Story Centre led by Prof Elizabeth Ngugi of the University of Nairobi.

The centre has for 20 years championed the rescue of women and girls from sex work and provided them with tailor-made training programmes on how to create and run small businesses.

It is now decision time. The government, including local authorities, must realise that there is no virtue in chasing around sex workers and portraying them as outcasts when an army of new recruits continues to grow each year.

As long as poverty, limited economic opportunities and jobs, gender inequality, substance abuse and low levels of education remain, the sex trade will continue to thrive.

The best way out is to provide some level of recognition for sex workers, which would allow them to operate within the law. This way, they would access regular health services including HIV testing and counselling.

Those who are infected will be put on early treatment, and more importantly, will not put their clients at risk of infection.

by Fred Gori – Mr Gori is a communications counsel and this piece was first published in DN.
Source – Identity Kenya