Despite a taboo against homosexuality in Kenya, the government has decided to acknowledge the existence of men who have sex with men in an effort to curb new HIV infections in the country. A survey of gay attitudes and behaviours in the Kenyan cities of Nairobi, Kisumu, and Mombasa will be conducted in early 2010 with the help of the United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).
This study has hurdles to conquer, considering that sex between men is illegal in Kenya. Those caught engaging in homosexual acts are eligible for up to 14 years in prison. Nevertheless, with 7%Â of Kenya infected with HIV and 15% of that population unaware of their status, this survey is imperative, regardless of any social or judicial prohibitions.
Fifteen percent of new HIV infections result from sex between men in Kenya, partially due to the myth that HIV cannot be contracted through anal sex. Without surveying this group of people specifically, the war against HIV/AIDS will continue unabated.
Warren Buckingham, country coordinator for PEPFAR in Kenya, says, “It isn’t just men who have sex with men. UNAIDS recently did a transmission study in Kenya and other countries and learned that men who have sex with men, injection-drug users and commercial sex workers are the groups with the highest transmission rates. PEPFAR is supporting Kenya in getting a deeper understanding.”
The survey, according to Buckingham, will be carried out through ‘respondent-driven sampling.
“We start with a small cohort of self-identified gay men or men who have sex with men, however they prefer to identify, and ask them to help identify other people, always with careful consideration of confidentiality. We never ask one person for someone else’s name. We give them our contact information and give them the control,” Buckingham says.
Speaking about alarmist headlines that have surfaced of late regarding the study, Buckingham addressed the potential for the survey to lead to persecution of participants.
“Because of very serious concerns of confidentiality, no personal identification information will be collected,” he assured. The only personal information to be collected will be demographic information, “like age,” Buckingham reported. “No names or anything like that.”
Some are skeptical about the conclusiveness of survey results, considering that some men do not self-identify as gay, and others refuse to come out as gay or acknowledge the homosexual acts they engage in for fear of discrimination.
Buckingham explained that surveyors would be looking for ‘behaviour’ indicators for HIV transmission risk factors.
“We’ll be using good sampling techniques and standard tools for testing to extrapolate the results,” he noted. “There is no absolute, hard and fast number. The survey is more to drive programme planning and to help ensure prevention and intervention measures are available at the appropriate scale, such as in urban centres where there are significant numbers of men who have sex with men, injection drug users, and sex workers.”
Once the results have been collected, better programming can be determined.
“There are some limited programmes already dealing with men who have sex with men,” Buckingham said, suggesting more practices and programmes that encourage condom use and the reduction of sexual partners. There should also be a discouragement from having “multiple, concurrent relationships,” Buckingham added.
Finally, because of the phenomenon in Kenya of men who publicly pass as straight, but are having sex with men behind closed doors, PEPFAR will help them “take advantage of opportunities for couples, like HIV testing with partners of either gender,” Buckingham concluded.
It is the hope of Kenya’s gay community that such a study will open the door to dialogue regarding homosexuality in the country, ideally resulting in a reshaping of public opinion about HIV/AIDS.
A MediaGlobal News Service at the United Nations article.