Let us respect key populations
Last weekend, my friend and I went to buy a dress for me. We met in town and after a long, tedious search (20 minutes) we found a stall with dresses she liked, which I in turn had to like. I tried on a couple of dresses and she finally settled on a girly one. When it came time to agree on a price, I jokingly told the male shop attendant (let’s call him Mike) that my friend was my ‘sponsor’ therefore she would be the one paying. He slowly turned and looked at her, then turned back and asked me if I was serious that she was my sponsor…which he had taken to mean girlfriend.
From the look on his face, I decided I wanted to see how this would play out. So I told him we are a couple and are serious about our relationship. He then turned to my pal, who hadn’t been listening to our conversation, and asked her if indeed we were in a relationship. She quickly caught on to what I had done and told him we were. He got excited and called his partner (let’s call him Ben) in the shop to tell him about the lesbians buying a dress.
After negotiating the price for a while, they both stepped out to check on something. One minute later, a different young man came into the shop and fussed around in the box where some dresses had been kept. He left with nothing. 30 seconds later, another man did the same and left with nothing. By the time the 5th man had done this routine, we realized the men were shop attendants in the mall and all of them were just coming into the shop to see the ‘lesbian couple’.
Ben and Mike finally got back and started with the questions.
Who is the man in the relationship?
Who will carry the pregnancy if you want a baby?
Who will be the father of your child?
Can I be the father of your child?
My pal and I answered all these as diplomatically as we could…though I was becoming increasingly annoyed. This was especially because of where I work.
I have been working at the Kenya Legal and Ethical Issues Network (KELIN) an NGO that works to ensure that health human rights on HIV, AIDS and TB are integrated into policies, laws and regulations. KELIN has a diverse clientele. One of the thematic areas, Key and Affected populations, works with groups of people who are 10-20 times more likely to become infected by HIV & TB than the rest of the population. These key populations include sex workers, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, and people who use drugs.
In Kenya there are laws, regulations, and policies in place that stringently restrict access to health and legal services for these groups. I have therefore been in trainings and conferences with the LGBT community organized by the team of Ted Wandera and Vincent Obwanda. I thought I completely understood their plight but since the shopping incident, I have noticed I don’t.
Key populations face a lot of stigmatization. Sex workers face social stigma that in turn causes self stigma. A sex worker going through self stigma sees herself as the problem that society portrays her to be. She will therefore shy away from seeking medical assistance, accessing ARVs if she is HIV positive and reporting abusive clients to the police. They live in fear of violence from their clients or the police.
Injecting drug users are mostly heroin users. There are a lot of circumstances that lead to drug use including stress, poverty, and influence by peers or adults in one’s life. Once a person is hooked to the heroin drug, it is very hard to quit. Injecting drug users, especially in the slums share needles and will basically do anything for a quick fix which increases their risk of contracting HIV.
Some NGOs have harm reduction workers who provide clean needles and syringes, condoms to reduce the chance of contracting HIV among the users, HIV and hepatitis screening and ARVs for those on MAT treatment. By law, having and carrying what is referred to as drug paraphernalia and being in what is considered a ‘den’ where drug users gather is a crime. Therefore, these harm reduction workers risk arrest for distribution of clean needles and syringes and going to the places drug users buy and use the drugs.
The LGBT community face social and self stigma too. Once a person comes out to declare they are gay, they stand a risk of rejection by family and friends, violence and insults from outsiders, being thrown out of learning institutions among other consequences.
From my interaction with the shop attendants, the question about who was to carry the baby and the constant staring by the other shop attendants is what irritated me the most.
Here is my point. Being part of the key populations is difficult enough as it is. There are many sensitive issues around sex workers, drug users and LGBT community. Legal issues, ethical issues, moral issues, religion and societal norms among others. Whether the activities that they engage in, in your opinion, are good or bad, forbidden or accepted… What really matters to me is that you remember they are human beings.
While looking at how the sex worker is dressed, remember she is someone’s daughter or mother of a six year old who is waiting for breakfast at home so he can go to school. While looking at that drug user who just got hit by a bicycle while crossing the street in a daze, remember his mother or brother is somewhere looking for him. While you may have a couple of very personal questions for that lesbian couple you just met, remember to respect their privacy as individuals. Meeting a gay individual does not entitle you to ask invasive questions about their personal lives that you would not ask your sister or cousin. Do you know what surprised the shop attendants the most? That my pal is a lawyer and I am an accountant. Like by being a lesbian, one is not entitled to a career or vice versa!
We must treat all people with dignity. As human beings, what separates us from animals is free will and intellect…Use them! I am not saying you change your strong beliefs in what is morally upright and what is not. I am not trying to change your religious standing. No. What am asking is that you remember to be humane. That as you judge me on the dress and makeup I like to wear as a woman or my job description or the drug habit I stumbled on and can’t seem to be able to kick, please remember I am a human being and do no harm. That I am a human being with emotions just like yours, and they do get hurt. You may not agree with my choices or how I choose to live my life but kindly respect me.