PEMA Kenya was founded within a context of tragedy and death, when a young gay man, shunned and stigmatized by his family because of his sexual orientation, died in May 2008. There was no one to honour his memory or give him a decent burial. Stunned by such a level of loathing for gay people, a group of gay men in Mombasa came together to find a decent and dignified resting place for him. It was this support of one of their own that gave birth to the Brotherhood.
Because of this history, the original membership of PEMA Kenya was comprised of only gay and bisexual men. This has now expanded to include other gender and sexual minorities (GSM).
PEMA is an acronym for Persons Marginalised and Aggrieved. The organisation was registered as a community-based organisation (CBO) on August 6, 2009. The history of the name, however, dates much earlier to when, in June 2008, “PEMA” (meaning a “good place” in Swahili) was designated as the name of the organisation.
Our legal and policy environment
Kenya’s legal and policy environment is characterised by colonial-era provisions in the penal code that criminalise “carnal knowledge against the order of nature,” which is widely understood to refer to anal intercourse between men. Government agencies have justified their stigmatising and discriminatory attitudes towards gender and sexual minorities on the grounds that they are criminalised and their work would allegedly promote illegal behaviours. Politicians and extremist religious leaders seek to bolster their relevance by proposing homophobic legislation and preaching hatred against GSMs in Kenya.
The police have a responsibility to protect the life and property of all Kenyan people. They also have a responsibility to prevent violence and protect victims. However, they have been inconsistent in playing this role while responding to mob violence against GSMs. Because of criminalisation and the inconsistent police response, most victims of homophobic and transphobic attacks do not report crimes to the police, believing that the police will not help them or, worse, might arrest them.
Our social and cultural environment
The social and cultural environment is characterised by very low understanding of GSM issues. Opinion leaders are just as ignorant of these issues as members of the general public. Religious leaders, politicians, and the media are the main sources of public opinion on GSMs. While each of these groups is different, they all work to reinforce the view that GSMs are unacceptable in Kenyan society due to cultural or religious reasons.
The media engages in sensational reporting on “scandals,” sometimes entirely fabricated, involving lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Politicians and religious leaders, on the other hand, often seek to boost their public visibility and relevance by engaging in inflammatory talks against GSMs—whom they regard as un-African and in violation of their religious practices.
Stigma and discrimination within health facilities negatively impact GSMs’ ability to access health services. HIV services for men who have sex with men, in particular, continue to be under threat. PEMA Kenya continues to document cases of GSMs forced to live in conditions that negatively impact their health and life outcomes, while at the same time engaging in sensitisation of healthcare providers on GSM health needs.
PEMA Kenya believes strongly in the value of integrated services for GSMs, both within public and private health facilities. For that reason, PEMA Kenya works on a two-pronged approach: one, by building the capacity of healthcare providers to work on GSM issues with required sensitivity; and two, by facilitating a smooth referral system for GSMs into health facilities with already sensitised healthcare providers.
Violence as an instrument of social stigma
Even more worrying is the social acceptance and tolerance of violence against GSMs as an instrument for the preservation of a heteronormative social order. This has forced many GSMs to live closeted lives, which negatively impacts their ability to socialise with other LGBT persons. They are therefore unable to advocate for their rights or, more generally, freely engage in personal and professional development activities. While the ever-present threat of violence drives most GSMs underground, preserving a false social perception of GSM invisibility in public spaces, the impact on life and health outcomes for GSMs is severe.
High unemployment among members
The final evaluation report of PEMA Kenya’s previous strategic plan revealed that about 55 percent of the organization’s members were currently unemployed, with a further 14 percent employed only part-time. Only 20 percent of respondents were full-time employed.
Data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics estimate that only two out of five wage jobs are in the formal private sector (2.1 million in 2011). While 800,000 young Kenyans reach working age each year, only 50,000 new modern wage jobs are created annually (World Bank, 2012).
In the context of criminalization, stigma, and discrimination, such high rates of unemployment will often affect marginalized groups the most. PEMA Kenya’s continued commitment to supporting socioeconomic empowerment of GSMs in the coastal regions will require a lot of support to realize much-needed impact.
Within this context, PEMA Kenya seeks to contribute towards the realization of an empowered society that embraces justice, equity, and diversity. PEMA Kenya will act as a champion for the inclusion of GSMs in society by providing space for advocacy, networking, and capacity building for GSMs, as well as providing society in general with the tools and information needed to improve the lives of all.