Bridging the Gaps’ 2020 Learning Institute takes place in Cape Town, South Africa, from 24 to 26 March. Here, people who use drugs, sex workers, and LGBT people gather to share best practices in the HIV response, and to connect with others. In the run-up to the upcoming Learning Institute, KeNPUD Director John Kimani tells us his expectations for the event.

‘I’m one of the lucky people who will participate in the Learning Institute for key populations. This is a great opportunity to present some of the best practices of my organisation, KeNPUD. We represents the Kenyan community of people who use drugs. First of all, I want to share my experiences of the mobilisation and organising work by our community members, and how we were able to form a network. Another best practice I’d like to share is our advocacy work that resulted in a huge rise in the number of people using clean needles. Before, the coverage was 350. While we advocated to reach 7,000 individuals, no less than 10,000 people now receive three to four clean needles every month. This amazing achievement helps prevent the transmission of HIV and hepatitis in Kenya. Furthermore, I’d like to tell the Learning Institute participants about the training on the IDUIT tool that we attended. It has enabled us to represent ourselves in the Country Coordinating Mechanism of the Global Fund. Also, our successful fundraising efforts are interesting to share, since we managed to get a grant from the Open Society Foundations.

I hope to hear best practices from others

‘I also hope to hear best practices from the other participants in the Learning Institute, what they are doing in their countries, so I can bring these to my country. For example, I’d like to get more information about the process of making proposals to obtain grants. Moreover, I’m interested in the different policies of the attendees’ countries. In short, I’d like to hear what works and what doesn’t. Because, even though my organisation has achieved much in Kenya, people who use drugs still face several challenges. We are most hit by HIV, hepatitis and tuberculosis. Moreover, we’re going through a lot of police violence and violations of our rights. I remember one incident in particular. One day, I was just sitting with a couple of my peers, when suddenly law enforcers came in and attacked us. They arrested us and took us to the police station. Then we were taken to court and jailed for one month. The only reason they gave us was that we were in a place where drugs were used. We had not even been using drugs. This made me feel so bad. I thought to myself, if this can happen when I’m not in the wrong, what will happen if I am in the wrong? Experiences like this motivated me to do something for people who use drugs. That’s why I formed the Kenya Network of Persons Using Drugs together with other key population members. I’m committed to our work because I’m a drug user myself and I really want to see changes in my community.

Lack of education leads to risky situations

‘In Kenya, there are three main challenges that make people vulnerable to HIV: poverty, lack of education and needle sharing. Due to poverty, many girls drop out of school and become sex workers to earn money. They are not well-informed about HIV transmission or how to take care of themselves, and so some don’t use condoms during sex work. Something else is that people who use drugs often share needles, transmitting HIV and hepatitis in this way. Other problems are the cruelty of some men who rape women and also the circumcision of different women with the same knife. Lack of education often leads to risky situations. I’m convinced that giving information is a crucial factor in successfully responding to HIV. Increasing people’s knowledge should start in schools, but also churches and mosques should educate people about HIV transmission and how to live with HIV.

I love myself and I want to see the rights of other people who use drugs being respected

‘However, there are also positive developments in Kenya. The prevalence of HIV and hepatitis is much lower than before. Moreover, thanks to KeNPUD’s sensitisation work among health workers, law enforcers and the general population, stigmatisation of people who use drugs has been greatly reduced. This helps people come out and share what they are going through. Furthermore, needles are shared on a much smaller scale. Also, we’ve sensitised women who use drugs on condom use, which is important because these women often do sex work. Another improvement is that Kenya’s national AIDS strategy now focuses on education, human rights and universal healthcare coverage. Before, it mainly mentioned the numbers of people to be reached, and to be sensitised about condom use and clean needles.

The government should take health seriously

‘I have a strong motivation to fight for my community. I love myself and I want to see the rights of other people who use drugs being respected. My wish is that one day Kenya will have special rooms where people who use drugs can receive support, even in injecting drugs properly, step by step. Another desire is that the existing harm reduction programmes will be scaled up, so that every person who uses drugs can be reached with information, medicines, prevention measures and treatment. Besides, we need more methadone clinics. Also, our government should take health seriously and be able to fund healthcare, so that people don’t have to go to hospital with money but only have to use their identification card to access health services. In addition, I want to raise awareness about the mental health of people who use drugs, including those living with HIV. We see many leave school early, high unemployment levels and very low living standards among them. Our government should work with communities to be able to understand what people are going through and what they need. Actually, I have so many ideas, and I’d love to hear suggestions from others working in the same field. That’s why I’m very much looking forward to attending the Learning Institute.’

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