How a battle over biometrics opened the doors to Kenya’s government
When in 2017 the Kenyan Government announced it would be bringing in biometrics, where body measurements and calculations are used to identify individuals and collect data on key populations, some viewed it as a sign of progress.
But for many people from key populations the proposal had worrying ramifications. Fearing a backlash that would push key populations underground and away from HIV services, PITCH partner the Kenya Key Population (KP) Consortium embarked on a multi-layered advocacy campaign to reverse the decision.
“The approach towards key population programming has really changed since the issue of biometrics was raised,” says Grace Kamau, the former National Coordinator of the Kenya KP Consortium. “Before it was very hard for us to knock on the government doors, but now a lot of those doors are open.” The involvement of key populations in decision-making has changed the course of key population programming. With greater capacity, they are better positioned to say what affects them and use their voices to advocate for meaningful change.
Damage to Kenya’s HIV response
The effect of the eight-month campaign has been far reaching – not only has a solution been agreed, key population groups have also seen their funding rise and secured seats on important decision-making bodies for the first time in the country’s HIV response.
The campaign began after the Government announced it was planning to use a form of biometrics, whereby people’s thumbprints would be stored and connected to personal information to collect data on key populations across the country.
Grace, a sex worker who has worked with key population groups on HIV prevention, human rights and movement building for the past eight years, says it soon became clear the proposal could damage Kenya’s HIV response.
The Government said it wanted to use biometrics to avoid the issue of duplication, but key population organisations didn’t feel safe because this is the same government that criminalises them and could store their data for other uses.
She adds: “Biometrics is being used in many government security systems; for example, for criminal track records. One of the main concerns was that this system could be used to expose someone as being from a key population, which could be used against them.”
“When it comes to the issue of the legal environment, we have asked the Government to join hands with us, but they are not responsive, so why do they want to keep our data?”
Building up the case
After consulting with around 200 key population organisations, the KP Consortium formed a representative group and met with government officials. The group explained that key populations’ lack of confidence in this type of data collection, would make them less likely to provide their information, which could lead to inaccurate readings. They also pointed out that the use of biometrics might deter key populations from accessing HIV prevention, testing and treatment services, with potentially dire consequences for people’s health and new infection rates. Initially, the Government dismissed the concerns, saying they had used biometrics for key population data collection in the past so what they were proposing was nothing new.
“When it happened the first time key population groups had not been as well developed as we are now,” explains Grace. “This time we could explain the issues. What’s more, we had interrogated that system and felt it was not good in terms of data security. There was no information about what kind of key population data is being stored and who can access it. So we told them, it’s time to rethink the strategy because key populations are not comfortable.
“We asked for a second meeting. But the Government was very reluctant in that conversation. We realised that they had already procured the biometric machines; they were really pushing for that agenda.” adds Grace.
Following each meeting the KP Consortium documented and circulated their conversations and action points and provided recommendations on how people from key population groups should respond if they were asked for their biometric data.
Support from global partners
Having met with resistance from the Government, the KP Consortium contacted UNAIDS and Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria to share their concerns and rally support.
After a number of meetings, both organisations recommended that the Kenyan Government find an alternative means of data collection and create guidelines on safe data collection and security for key populations.
“The Global Fund said the situation was an indication that whatever programmes the government was doing, they were not consulting the constituencies first. Because, if there had been a consultation, this situation would not have gotten to where it went,” says Grace.
The Government then agreed to the KP Consortium’s proposal to use non-protocol driven size estimation, whereby key population groups are trained to collect data themselves. This is now being implemented and Grace says the system is working well.
But the legacy of the advocacy work doesn’t stop there. After the biometrics campaign, the KP Consortium was invited to join the National AIDS Control Council (NACC) Steering Committee, the board that directs the National AIDS Council, and is now involved in forming key population technical working groups in a number of counties.
The KP Consortium has continued relations with both NACC and the National AIDS and STIs Control Programme (NASCOP), especially in the Key Populations Technical Working Group (KP TWG) that sees members from the key population organisations interact with the various county leads in key population programming. This has led to improved relations and visibility in county-led forums.
Key population organisations have also been given a central role in drafting the new key population data security guidelines and are also being consulted on what Kenya’s universal health coverage implementation should look like for people most affected by HIV. Support from the Global Fund has also increased, and two key population representatives now sit on the Country Coordinating Mechanism. In addition, Global Fund money has been allocated to 13 key populations’ organisations and two networks of people who use drugs and female sex workers for prevention work.
Before this we didn’t have any representation, but now we are in many forums, there is a lot of collaboration. Now there is a better understanding that, in relation to any issue that involves key populations, the Government must consult us. Another positive result of the campaign is that key population organisations now increasingly speak with one voice to advocate for their issues.
The battle is not over for key populations in Kenya. Laws criminalising consensual same-sex acts are still in place. Earlier this year, the Kenyan High Court dismissed the petition by three Kenyan organisations working to protect the health and human rights of LGBT people, to decriminalise a law that negatively impacts their access to health services.
However, Grace says she is positive about the future. “Our hope is for better key population programming. We also hope to have the laws on key populations changed.”
Thank you to Grace Kamau, the former National Coordinator and Solomon Wambua, the current National Coordinator of the Kenya KP Consortium for their contribution to this story.