“What Happens When Creativity Replaces Fear?” CONTENT WARNING: Mention of sexual violence,
Often times when our identities are criminalized, when the world works hard to tell us that we are not meant for it, it can be hard to see beyond these lies. It can be tough to dream, to imagine a time where we are thriving, living and loving. Current Kenya is a product of years of investment in only two genders, glorification of the sexual pleasure of men assigned male at birth in their relationships to women also assigned female at birth and their core purpose being reproduction. Women, assigned female at birth or not, people who are genderqueer or gender non conforming as well as men who do not explicitly take female sexual partners, we are all marked to be different in the current Kenya. The education system and the religious institutions have also been used over the years to support this thinking, to condition us to this thinking.
In the last year, the Government of Kenya has made declarations of its commitment to providing access to sexual reproductive health services and rights for all Kenyans within Universal Health Coverage(UHC), first by announcing its commitment during the International Conference on Population and Development(ICPD) in November and later in the announcement of the prioritization within the Big Four Agenda for the government.
Before you start wondering what Universal Health Coverage is, Dr. Stellah Bosire of UHAI-EASHRI explained it as “a complete state of physical, mental and social wellbeing in all matters relating to the reproductive system. It implies that people are able to have a satisfying sex life and they’re capable to reproduce when and if they want and the freedom to decide when and how often they want to do so (I have added the part in bold)” during one of the webinars we hosted.
All this sounds quite exciting, right?
It is, or rather, it would be a reason for celebration if we did not have all the heartbreaking experiences and news we have had in the 8months alone since then. Let me tell you more about what has happened while trying not to break your heart again.
The COVID-19 pandemic that was making its way around the world had the first confirmed case in Kenya on Friday the 13th of March. Within a week, children, adolescents, and young adults who were in boarding schools went back home. This also included those for whom school served as a safe space away from abusive families, relatives who rape them because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, families that complain about them being a burden due to their disabilities, or just homes where they are forced to exist like a gender they are not. Others were left homeless during a pandemic.
Many public places were shut down, people lost their jobs, travel restrictions were enforced and daily curfews were also put in place. Life became even harder for those experiencing sexual gender-based violence at home because it was harder to get away without fearing for your safety because the Police were now focused on enforcing the curfew and all else seemed forgotten. Our safety no longer seemed to matter.
The Drop-in Centres where sex workers could get regular testing and safe sex supplies were also affected by the travel restrictions and budget cuts. Marilyne Laini of Nkoko Iju Africa shared a case of a female sex worker who was raped by a client and later sought an abortion but got arrested. Being the sole provider at home, her family sold a piece of land to get money to facilitate her freedom. The absence of safe and legal pregnancy termination services in Kenya should not cost a family their land. According to Dr. Patricia Owira of the International Center for Reproductive Health (ICRH) Kenya and thematic lead for adolescent health, HIV/AIDs and sexual & gender violence, “on universal health coverage emphasizing financial risk protection and ensuring quality essential healthcare services for all.”
All this has made the pandemic period tough for the community. Our mental and psychosocial health has definitely been impacted as Gigi Louisa notes from the work that she does with Jinsi Yangu which is a transgender, intersex, and gender non-conforming organization. Additionally, “access to HIV and STI related information and treatment options, Drop-In-Centres for key populations had their priorities redirected to COVID response and their capacity to respond was also slashed with limited supplies being made available by National AIDs and STIs Control Programme (NASCOP). This can all feel quite overwhelming especially with the recent news of COVID-19 response money not being used for the right purposes while the health care workers that would support us in realizing universal health coverage go to work without proper protective gear. Marilyne also highlighted the need for more community workers to be trained in palliative care to relieve the burden from the few who serve in communities currently as they are
preferred than healthcare workers due to their noted inability to keep their biases away from their work.
In the period since schools were closed, there has been data shared on teenage girls who have become pregnant. The same religious entities and general society that will not provide age-appropriate sexuality education were front lines blaming the girls for being pregnant while at the same time not having access to family planning, lack of prioritization of emergency rape response services within pandemic regulations, and no assurance of child-care support. When responding to the situation of religious leaders who use religious text to oppress LGBTIQ-GNC individuals, Hunnielle Samuels, who aims to be the first intersex Imam in the world, sent a call to Religious leaders to be guided by love and not judge God’s creation and avoiding the translation religious text for their own benefit and understanding. One of the views Hunnielle expressed in this line is that Prophet Muhammad was a feminist based on how much attention was given to the rights of women from the Quran.
In line with this call to love, PO Kimani, a mixed media artist working towards remembering healing and creating a world where many worlds fit in, offered their experience as a chronically ill cancer patient/warrior/survivor that “a lot of the problems are not because of who we are but how the world is set.” With this truth, what follows is now is an invitation for us to love, live and thrive, take pleasure in the things we have access to and to show up for each other.
As many of the participants in the webinars can now recognize, we are already showing up. We got to share how sharing meals with our loved ones bring us peace, sleeping without interruption, spending time with our families, moving our bodies in dance or exercise, enjoying the feel and sight of our naked bodies, listening to music, or even simply sitting in silence. We also got to share about how we find pleasure in nature, being one with plants or gazing at the moon. Others shared fondly of having friends reminding them to slow down and take breaks from work.
During the webinars and online chats, information on where to access friendly sexual reproductive health services was exchanged, we also shared information and held space for each other as we talked about the struggles we face with love and understanding. Ava Mrima reminded us how we are already using technology to our advantage which was also evident in the ways the webinars bridged distances and we got to spend time together with each other. We did our best to simplify complicated ideas for each other, used Swahili and Kenya Sign language in our discussions too.
If you have read this far, our call to you is to spread love without judgment, show up for each other even if it is to medical appointments, continue sharing in those meals, and allowing yourself little pleasures because you are deserving of that for simply being human.
Initiative for Equality and Non Discrimination (INEND) is a local nonprofit organization that researches strategies for equality and acceptance in the coast region of Kenya and shares experiences with other stakeholders in an effort to contribute towards tolerance, non-discrimination and acceptance of gender and sexual minorities.