Safe Spaces: A Haven For The Lesbians, Gay, Bisexual And Transgender (LGBT) Population In The Face Of Stigma And Discrimination.
Lesbians, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community in Vihiga County have found safe spaces established by LVCT Health through the EJAF (Elton John AIDS Foundation) funded TOUCH plus project to be really useful. The innovative use of safe spaces within rural settings like Vihiga County in Kenya is providing security, identity and privacy to the discreet and sensitive LGBT community. These spaces are rooms/houses where the LGBT community members meet in a safe environment where they can share their experiences, support each other and receive information and education on other services such as Health education, condoms and lubricants. The safe spaces have been set up in towns, but within the residential areas and within proximity of link public health facilities where the community members receive biomedical HIV prevention services.
These safe spaces are operated by community members who are the only ones who know the identity of their peers, hence providing safety in the context of high levels of stigma in the rural areas of Western Kenya. “This is our safe haven, where we are allowed to be ourselves and away from all the harshness of the world,” Elly said confidently. Elly Adaro describes himself to me as a loving father and son. He is a Form four school dropout. He is trained and works as a peer educator for the TOUCH Plus project and lives by himself in Vihiga County. Stigma and discrimination have for a long time been the most challenging and greatest hindrance for this population in accessing health services. In Kenya, LGBT activity is criminalized and if found out, one can face jail term for up to 14 years. This has increased the vulnerability of this population for years, with most of them opting to suffer in silence.
Elly vividly remembers these words once uttered by a health care worker a while back, when he had visited a health facility, “I am busy, could you come and take care of these gay people”. The words still ring in Elly’s mind whenever he thinks of going to a health service center/clinic despite the fact that they were said a few years ago. “I was traumatized by the words of the service provider. I hang my head and walked out swearing never to seek health services from a health center, or to encourage any of my peers to do the same,” he narrated with anger reflecting on his face.
The situation is now different. Thankfully, TOUCH Plus project has, besides, supporting the setup of safe spaces, also facilitated the sensitization of health care workers, especially in government facilities on the existence of the LGBT population, health needs and their fears. “This has really helped us, and we have seen a lot of attitude improvement and awareness from health care providers. We still experience some hostility from a few that may not have been sensitized but most are willing to listen to us and help us,” Elly states.
When I asked him what challenges he encounters as a peer educator and member of the LGBT community, he was quick to identify stigma, “As a peer educator, the greatest challenge I face is in mobilizing and approaching members of this population/community because many prefer to live discreet lives and do not want to come out clean on their orientation. The peer educator branding materials such as bags, which should essentially be a good thing, have often times landed us in trouble as they are not only a source of stigma but community members begin accusing us of recruiting their children into our ‘evil practices.”
In the course of the interview, it came out clearly that there was general preference for this population to access their services from public health facilities whose staff have been trained and sensitized on the needs of this population through the TOUCH project. This is owing to the fact that services and medication are free and should there be need for admission, there is also that provision. Elly also cited that there is also a preference for public health facilities because many of the service providers there have been sensitized on this population hence offering friendly services.
As a member of this population, he would recommend that the government and all stakeholders to develop and implement policies to ensure that this population is not discriminated against as they are also human beings and are also entitled to good health care. He gives credit to the services offered at safe spaces besides the health facilities, “If possible, have a health care provider based there to cater to our health needs. These spaces have been invaluable to us. I have personally really benefited. The health education I have received in these spaces have given me a deeper understanding of myself and a clearer direction in life. I have also learned a lot on the associated risks and my rights as an individual and the best thing is the fact that I am no longer idle. My role as a peer educator keeps me engaged nearly all the time and this has reduced the time I invest in risky sexual behaviour,” he recounted.
By, Lynda Keeru.