A Kenyan cabinet minister who called for greater acceptance of gays by society has been accused of promoting 'un-African' acts and asked to resign.
Special Programmes Minister Esther Murugi recommended more tolerance towards men who have sex with men (MSM) at a national symposium on "most-at-risk populations" in the coastal city of Mombasa last week.
Several Christian and Muslim religious leaders, including the Federation of Evangelical and Indigenous Christian Churches of Kenya, have called for Murugi's resignation and threatened street protests if she is not fired immediately.
"She cannot say people who are engaging in crime and spoiling our children have rights," said Sheikh Mohamed Dor, a Member of Parliament and religious preacher. "We are waiting for when she will be fired from her post."
Religious leaders in Kenya have often used their considerable influence to sway public opinion. While religious groups have contributed significantly to the care of people living with HIV, their frequent opposition to providing HIV services to MSM, and the promotion of condom use, has led to clashes with national HIV policy.
Dr Nicholas Muraguri, head of the country's National AIDS and Sexually transmitted infections Control Programme (NASCOP), defended Murugi's stance. "This is one group that accounts for the spread of HIV in the country in a big way because they have been largely ignored," he told IRIN/PlusNews. "Accepting that they exist and providing services such as HIV prevention and care to them openly is the only option."
MSM, sex workers and injecting drug users are among the groups most at risk of HIV infection in Kenya. The latest national AIDS Indicator Survey attributed 15 percent of new HIV infections to MSM, and they are widely thought to be a bridge for HIV transmission to the general population as many also have female partners.
|What critics don't understand is that the person closest to them could be falling in the same group they are loudly condemning|
"What critics don't understand is that the person closest to them could be falling in the same group they are loudly condemning," Muraguri commented.
The government plans to incorporate MSM into the country's HIV programme after a national survey of the high-risk group, due to start in December 2010, has been completed.
Kenya's recently promulgated constitution does not specifically mention homosexuality, but the penal code makes "carnal acts against the order of nature" punishable by up to 14 years in prison.
The latest strategic plan for HIV/AIDS recognizes the "difficult legal issues" in trying to provide healthcare directly to groups like MSM, and notes that there is a need to come up with policies that will make it easier for them to access services.
Derrick*, a male sex worker in the capital, Nairobi, said the sort of condemnation directed at the minister was what convinced people like him to remain in the shadows.
"Just imagine - if a minister can be condemned like that, then what would happen to an ordinary citizen like me?" he said. "They would just stone you to death."