The US has declined to fund a national census of gays, sex workers and drug injectors in Kenya that proposed to collect their fingerprints, 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 biometric identifiers, including fingerprints, toe and iris scans to minimise fraudulent collection of free ARVs for sale in the black market.
The ministry had argued that this would reduce cases of 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.
“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 Programme for AIDS Response (PEPFAR) has now declined to fund the exercise pressurising 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. HIV programming in Kenya depends 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 finalised 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: “NASCOP representatives warned key populations representatives of potential negative repercussions for their organisations 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.
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“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 criminalised 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.
Buoyed by the win, the consortium now wants sex work, same sex sexual behaviour and drug use to be decriminalised in Kenya in line with international human rights obligations.