The Kenyan sex worker movement - living positively in all ways

Melissa Wainaina
Source (institute/publication)
Behind the Mask

Behind the Mask Correspondent Melissa Wainaina spoke to Kenyan male sex worker John Mathenge about his work raising awareness amongst fellow sex workers and those living positively with HIV or Aids.

Please tell us about yourself and what you do?

I am John Mathenge Mukaburu, a sex worker and founder of Hoymas, a male sex worker support group. I am also the country coordinator of Kenya Sex Workers Alliance (KESWA). I am also a member of Gay Kenya and my work entails advocating for sex workers right to health care and social wellbeing as well as pushing for access to health care for People Living with HIV or Aids – PLWHAs. I am also living positively for close to 10 years now.

Tell us about Hoymas. How did you get into setting it up and why? 

Hoymas stand for “Health Options for Young Men on Aids and STIs”. It’s a group of male sex workers and PLWHA’s. It began in 2009 when we noticed the lack support towards male sex workers and especially those who were living positively. Most groups, even LGBT ones, often side-lined sex workers and this would be further complicated if they had HIV. Many of our members did not fit in the other existing groups and were therefore were left without social support. 

In my interactions with male sex workers, I felt the best way to help them was to form a group that was ready to accept and support them as well as address specific issues the group might have, health being the major one.

So far, we have over 200 registered members who are living positively from Nairobi alone, though others are registered but live in other towns like Mombasa and Kisumu. Of these, more than 150 are living positively and many are sex workers. 

Hoymas advocates for safer sex among sex workers as well as access to ARV drugs for those living with HIV; we also provide social support through meetings and outreaches. 

Our core mandate is prevention and this we do via distribution of condoms, lubes and safer sex brochures to our members, their clients and other potentials. To this end, we visit hot spots and brothels frequented by male sex workers. In addition, we do referrals for people who need them as well as providing legal assistance through contracting lawyers and legal aid in case of any eventuality such as arrests and so on. 

You are also the country coordinator for the Africa Sex Workers Alliance (ASWA). Give us some insight on your mission and your core mandate there?

The mission of ASWA is to empower sex workers to access their human rights, social justice and health care. This means we undertake programs that ensure this is achieved. In addition, we mobilize and capacitate sex workers to advocate for their health and human rights. We do this through training, community education and other skill-empowering avenues. 

You have had a special focus on those who work and live in the streets and those living with HIV/Aids. Tell us a little about that. What is the situation on the ground? What are the gains and what are the challenges?

There is a lot of stigma associated with HIV and Aids. There is also stigma towards sex workers and more so persons who identify as gay or are MSMs. This has led people being afraid of coming out and accessing health care.

There is also a gap in HIV treatment reaching PLWHAs. However, some gains have been made considering sex workers and MSMs are now included in HIV interventions by the Kenyan government.

Another gain is that sex work and MSM groups operate with relative openness and are registered which means they can reach out to these communities that other players in the healthcare sector (such as the government or health providers) may not reach.

One challenge is adherence to the medicine. Many MSMs who are PLWHA’s do not follow ARV regimes consistently due to one factor or another. Issues like constant arrests, alcoholism or drug dependence interfere with the regular intake necessary to benefit from ARV medication.

What are you currently working on?

I am currently working on UNFPA on a programme dealing with people aged under 18 years selling sex. The purpose is to implement a life skills program for these young persons through outreach and education workshops.

Please tell us what you see is the future of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, SOGI, rights work in Kenya?

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity are still grounds for discrimination in Kenya. Persons who identify as gay, lesbian or transgender often face harsh realities and challenges. There is still no respect or legal recognition of rights to persons who do not necessarily identify as ‘heterosexual.’ 

However, there is a live and active SOGI movement in Kenya, led by groups such as Gay Kenya that seek to push SOGI rights and recognition of such in public sphere and this respect there is remarkable progress made in the movement.

Gays and lesbians advocacy is more open and public now which is a far cry from past years. Challenges will not miss but these can be overcome through dialogue, openness and change in people’s attitude to homosexuals.

The new Constitution in Kenya is very broad and I think the gay and lesbian community has much to celebrate in that there are opportunities that can be looked into to push for non-discrimination and equality. As I said, this will take time and for people to change. This is where the real work is. 

Check out the Behind the Mask blog for news about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people in Africa.