By Gatonye Gathura
The US has declined to fund a national census of gays, prostitutes and drug injectors in Kenya that proposed to collect their finger prints, iris and toe scans.
The Ministry of Health has been planning a national census of these groups since 2016 but has met strong resistance from civil rights groups.
The ministry had proposed to use biometrics identifiers, including finger prints, toe and iris scans to minimize fraudulent collection of free ARVs for sale on the black market.
The ministry has also argued this would reduce cases fraudulent payments to ‘ghost’ HIV study participants involving these groups otherwise known as Kenya Populations.
There have been reports of male and female prostitutes collecting freely provided ARVs, HIV prevention pills, condoms, lubricants, antibiotics, test kits and other biomedicals to sell in the black market.
But the Kenya Key Populations Consortium, a representative of over 90 groups of gays, prostitutes, drug injectors and activists had opposed the use of biometrics.
They argued that such data in the hands of their ‘enemies’ such as the police would be used to track them down as criminals.
“Everyone just said no, and we kept saying no,” says a report documenting a battle that spanned several major capitals of the world.
The US President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Response (PEPFAR) has now declined to fund the exercise pressurizing the health ministry to drop biometrics from the survey.
A report published in April by KELIN a Kenyan NGO for the UK lobby group Privacy International and AIDS Fonds of The Netherlands says this has been a major win for the much maginalised groups in Kenya.
“As a result of meetings, statements and donor interventions, NASCOP has agreed to remove the use of biometrics from the census when it is conducted in 2018,” says the KELIN report.
The drama started around 2015 when the Global Fund, PEPFAR, Ministry of Health and the Key Populations Consortium met to review the progress made in reaching HIV targets.
The Consortium, the report says had complained that the number of their members being reached by HIV programmes was significantly small, arguing many had been left out.
HIV programming in Kenya depend on data collected by NASCOP in 2013 which puts the number of key populations at around 200,000.
“The absence of accurate size estimates makes it challenging to persuade donors to provide sufficient funding for health services to key populations,” says the KELIN report.
To rectify the situation the Ministry of Health and donors agreed to carry out new size estimation study, with support from the Global Fund.
By November 2016, a NASCOP presentation shows it had finalized the study plans, got necessary ethical approvals, procured expensive equipment for biometrics, hired staff and were ready to fully launch the census.
“When informed, we said no to the biometrics,” says the Consortium, consequently triggering a year-long battle with the government.
At one point the report shows NASCOP threatening the prostitutes with unspecified consequences if they continued fighting the biometrics.
“NASCOP representatives directly warned key populations representatives of potential negative repercussions for their organizations if the research did not proceed as planned with the use of biometrics,” says the report.
The Consortium did not back down, rather supported by the US lobby group Health Gap it escalated the conflict to the UN, Global Fund and PEPFAR both locally and in Geneva, Washington and London.
“We the Kenya Key Population Consortium support the census but not the use of biometrics as a method of data collection,” the group wrote to PEPFAR, UN, and the Global Fund.
In the letter the consortium argued the use of biomarkers—finger printing, iris scanning and toe scanning—would introduce fear of health clinics among the criminalized populations hence slowing the fight against HIV.
Health Gap took the fight to the PEPFAR budget planning meetings demanding the case of Kenya’s gays and prostitutes be heard – and they won.
“One of the major achievements from this is for PEPFAR to support a new census of key populations in 2018 without the use of biometrics,” says Health Gap.
The Consortium attributes their win to what they say is their resilience: “We are organically obstinate and stubborn…Everyone just said no, and kept saying no,” they told KELIN.
Buoyed by the win, now the Consortium wants sex work, same sex sexual behavior and drug use to be decriminalized in Kenya in line with international human rights obligations.
To achieve such goals the lobbyists tell the key populations to stick and fight together and demand to be included in decision making on research involving their members.
A NASCOP 2013 estimates
10,208 Men who have Sex with Men
29,494 Female Sex workers
6,107 Injecting Drug Users
Nationally Key Populations reached by HIV programmes
130,000 Female Sex Workers
13,000 Men who have Sex with Men
18,000 People who Inject Drugs