We chatted to John Mathenge, Direcor of HOYMAS and Vice President of NSWP about his life, work and activism.
Which countries and/or regions are you focused on in terms of mobilising support for the work that you do?
My work as a male sex worker activist focuses on Africa mostly because in Africa, sex work is mostly associated with female sex work and most male sex workers are largely ignored; the voice of the male sex worker rights movement is not heard as prominently as it should; the same can be said of transgender sex workers.
I also focus on Africa to help build a pan-African regional movement such as the African Sex Workers Alliance (ASWA) and others (I am currently in the process of forming a Male Sex Workers of Africa Coalition – we have a group at the moment). I am a sex worker activists who focuses on both male and female and transgender sex workers; I do not discriminate. Most of my work is confined in Kenya where there is a vibrant sex worker rights movement. I equally worked with different sex workers coordinators during my time at ASWA and this helped me to support the larger African sex worker rights movement.
My work is diverse and not only focusing on humans rights but also health. I advocate for sex workers living with HIV and want to see an emerging movement by sex workers living with HIV. I also lobby in regional and international platforms for sex workers rights and this includes anti-violence campaigns, access to health and rights, increased funding to sex workers organising and support policy change, legislative reforms to the advantage of sex workers.
What organisations are you currently involved in and what are the priority areas that these organisations work in? Tell us a bit about your activism/work specifically.
I work for and with various organisations such as the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) where I am the Board representative for Africa and thus represent Africa at such a global level; I also sit on the Global Network of Persons Living with HIV (GNP+) Advisory Board where I advocate for sex workers living with HIV. I was recently appointed as the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya’s (GALCK) representative at the African Men for Sexual and Health Rights (AMSHer), a pan-African sexual and health rights lobby and advocacy group for men who have sex with men, gay men and bisexual men.
I am also a member of the Kenya Sex Workers Alliance (KESWA) and I was previously the ASWA country coordinator for Kenya. I am currently full time, as Director of Health Options for Young Men on HIV, AIDS and STIs (HOYMAS), arguable the premier and largest male sex workers organisation in Kenya and in Africa.
I also represent key populations at the Technical Working Group (TWG) of the Kenya Government under the Ministry of Health. I am also the only man in the steering committee of the Red Umbrella Fund (RUF) the first and only fund for sex workers by sex workers globally.
My focus areas are health, human rights, and economic empowerment and the well-being of sex workers. I push for equal and non-stigmatizing health services for all and for health care providers to be sensitised on sex worker and MSM. I also advocate for condoms and lubes and ARV provisions to all and more so those living with HIV. Policy-wise, I am involved and keen in the policy guidelines formulations for key populations at the Government level. I have also been involved in the World Health Organisation (WHO) implementation tool for sex workers and I can proudly say HOYMAS was identified as a good practice model in HIV/STI programme implementation targeting sex workers.
I am equally passionate about human rights and especially for marginalised groups enjoying theirs – such as persons living with HIV and drug users and transgender persons. In addition, I have been in the forefront of training sex workers on their human rights, as well as doing sensitization trainings to human rights stakeholders such as the police, health care providers, the media, the Judiciary and other legal bodies. I have also been working with human rights organisations, lawyers and legal/paralegal officers in pursuing cases of violence, blackmail or other abuses against sex workers and ensuring justice is done.
In addition, my priority is social action and in the past, through HOYMAS, KESWA and ASWA, we have mobilised sex workers across the country to participate in national and themed days such as World AIDS Day, December 17th International Day to end Violence against Sex Workers and in supporting other sexual minorities – LGBTIQ – and their organisations, for example, the International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO). In addition, social action includes not only a demonstration of our identities but call for action or to pressure policy makers and thus I have participated and organised marches and demos as far as Kenya, Austria, Washington and India. Tied in with this are my numerous TV and radio interviews calling for the rights of sex workers to be respected and recognised.
I am particularly keen on ensuring the well-being of sex workers by looking at their welfare and this has involved initiating a nutrition programme for those who are living with HIV and plans are underway to have the world’s first home based care/palliative care for male sex workers. These efforts have seen HOYMAS, also a first, start regional branches in various parts of Kenya.
As I earlier mention, I am also working on creating a Male Workers Coalition of Africa and the first step will be a major conference in 2015 bring all MSW representatives from different Africa. A key outcome of this conference will be a road map of the male sex workers rights movement locally and regionally and its unique position in the overall push for sex workers rights in the region.
How did you become involved with sex worker rights activism? What issues or people inspired you?
As a sex worker for over 20 years, I come from a position of knowing rather than learning and thus this is what drives me. In addition, I experienced discrimination, initially, from the LGBTI community since I identify as a gay sex worker. I also experienced stigma on account of my HIV status (I have been living with HIV more than 15 years now). My family has also been affected by HIV and I lost several sisters to the disease but it was the silence around my family on this issue that pushed me to be open and break the silence. Many of my sex workers friends were also in denial and many, after years of suffering, would pass on and this greatly affected me. I then resolved to do my level best to make lives better.
When I began to be vocal, I met and was inspired by several people mostly Kenyan gay activists such as David Kuria who was public about his sexuality and who was running for political office. Seeing them inspired me and I was encouraged by their boldness. Up to now, there were no visible sex worker rights activists who I could look up to. When I first encountered other sex workers in Austria, I was exposed to how sex workers activists work and organise and when I came back to Kenya, I did not relax but decided to take action.
In my first meeting with ASWA, the male sex worker voice was not heard and luckily, this changed when I was appointed as the first male sex worker coordinator in Africa. I worked closely with female sex workers activists and organisations. I equally met individual activists such as Pat Abraham from Nigeria, Kholi (South Africa), Daughtie Ogutu (Kenya), and Ruth Morgan, Andrew Hunter, Chery l Overs and many others who were passionate about sex workers rights. The one who really inspired was the late Namibian male sex worker rights activist, Abel Shinana, who passed last year and was a dedicated person and loved by the community.
What were the biggest events or challenges you’ve worked on in the past? E.g. opposing or campaigning for a law; organising an event; running an organisation …?
I have worked on various national events such as December 17th’s International Day to end Violence against Sex Workers and for the past 4 years, we have had more than 500 sex workers – both male, female and transgender – coming together each year. There has also been strong media coverage of the event. The other event is the HOIYMAS Champion Day that bring together LGBTI and the sex worker community to share, interact and exchange ideas and is usually celebrated mid each year. Also, this day, we crown the HIV Champion who is ideally a person in both these communities who have shown remarkable contribution to HIV work. Other events I have been involved with include IDAHO and World AIDS Day.
As with every success, there are challenges. Key among them is my schedule that does not allow me to have time with my family or child. This is because my work runs full time and there is no respite. Working like this is very taxing to my health too. Other challenges include those related to my work. One has to be how the media has disrupted the gains we have made by their reporting biased on sex work issues. In addition, sex work is generally looked down upon by majority of Kenyans and thus I face anti-sex work sentiments all around. It does not help that I identify as gay and this is double stigma. The sex work community also is not yet strong; we are in the process of speaking with one voice and so at the moment it’s just individual activists working. I hope that in a few years a strong, vibrant and one sex worker rights movement and voice will emerge.
What do you think will be the biggest challenges for your organisation/sex workers in your country in the future?
The biggest challenge would be placing the sex worker rights movement in the push for social justice in Kenya. Since we are in the process of having one sex worker rights voice, it then becomes a challenges to engage or network with other human rights and social justice organisations.
Registration with the Government will also be an issue since there are new policies set in place to ensure LGBTI and sex work organisations do not register and thus prone to crackdown since thet will be labelled as illegal. These new policies also affect foreign funding as it curtails international funding to non-governmental organisations.
Every day, cases of violence and hate speech by politicians and religious leaders are becoming more pronounced and many are hard to charge. This is more evident during election time when sex workers – and LGBTI persons – are targeted.
Do you have one message for the sex worker rights movement? Or one message for people outside of the movement?
My one message is sex work is work. I believe that this is not only a political statement but also one that will bring sex workers together. It also debunks myths such as sex work is human trafficking, exploitation or that people are forced into sex work and its proof that most sex workers choose their profession. This message resonates with the call for self-support, organising and determination by sex workers themselves.
To the others, my one key message is to decriminalise sex work. It has been evidenced by global organisations such as the WHO, UNAIDS that decriminalisation not only reduces HIV but further protects sex workers from abuse or violations by others.
HOW do you carry out your activism e.g. what forms of social media and/or strategies do you use? (protests, social media, legislation, e.t.c.) to further the cause you advocate for?
I use various avenues to carry out my work. One has to be media engagement where I believe its important to put a face to sex workers and this involves interviews and being featured in the media and creating awareness on sex workers. This has the potential to change people’s perception.
As a community mobilizer, the other key way is through outreaches and especially when we undertake demos, marchers or protests. This show of solidary has the effect of numbers.
Lobbying policy makers and implementers in various fields – such as police, doctors, media – has also been of potential advantage as these are the people who will deal directly with sex workers on the ground and thus it is important that they already know the kind of persons who they are dealing with.
But the greatest form of activism is my life where as a gay, male sex worker living with HIV, my testimony and life are in themselves a form of activism.
Profile by Africa Regional Correspondent