Trans lives matter: Advocating for the rights of young trans women in Kenya

Written by Alesandra Ogeta, Research and Advocacy Officer, Jinsiangu Organization

I am living in a country that is quickly transforming into an open, democratic, and economically vibrant society. Despite the increasing freedoms in socio-economic and political spaces, the same cannot be said for minority and vulnerable groups such as the transgender community. Basic freedoms for transgender people remain limited, resulting in exploitation and gross humaLexy Ogetan rights violations against them.

A number of factors combine to make the environment ripe for widespread human rights violations against transgender people. Limited resources to adequately address human rights violations is one of these factors, perhaps the most significant one. Also, because trans people cannot have their identified gender on legal identification documents in Kenya, they are limited in education and job opportunities and often feel they have no choice but to engage in sex work, which leads to other high risk behaviors.

Transgender people often are not prioritized in the HIV response in comparison to other key populations, even though HIV prevalence is high among trans people. Programs designed for MSM populations are conflated to include transgender people; the soup is spoiled in this design! Creation of transgender specific programs is key. Programmers should not assume that if something works for the MSM community, it will work for the transgender population. Limited education on risk factors leads to high prevalence. Most trans people are not aware of risk factors for acquiring HIV. Education is also key, especially for young trans people.

The challenges facing young transgender people are wide-ranging. They include depression; low self-esteem; suicidal ideations; HIV and AIDS; drug abuse; discrimination in accessing public health services and employment opportunities; physical, sexual, and verbal abuse; parental neglect; and stigmatization and vilification from the public, the media, and religious fundamentalists.  Essential for any young trans woman is to personally affirm her identity as a woman, and she might participate in risky sexual behavior in order to achieve this. These behaviors could include being submissive when it comes to negotiation of condom use (therefore agreeing not to use a condom), accepting violence in relationships, and a general inability to defend herself against patriarchal males. Coercion to engage in unprotected sex, blackmail, and physical violence usually occur because a young trans woman is afraid of being exposed as trans to the general public; she will do anything to avoid this exposure.

Advocacy for rights and legal identification are two areas where the transgender community in Kenya is focusing its efforts. The fact that Kenyans do not accept transgender people’s rights to change their sex and name on legal identification and academic documents, and that trans people face psychological and physical violence, calls for more effective outreach to the general public to help them understand transgender people. Trans lives matter, and we must work hand-in-hand to combat these challenges.

Alesandra Ogeta a transgender activist working in Kenya with the Jinsiangu Organization as a Research and Advocacy Officer. Her initiatives have resulted in gains for the transgender community including the ability to change particulars in national IDs and passports. She currently sits on the board of the Transgender Education and Advocacy Organization in Kenya.

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