Where women are abused and exploited by customs.
The districts affected are the Western Kenyan ones of Kisumu, Nyando, Homa-Bay, Busia, Migori, Suba, Rachuonyo and Kuria. So severe has been the pandemic in these districts that death has become such a common occurrence. In deed, the sombre mood that characterises funerals is now a thing of the past.
Data collected from sentinel surveillance and voluntary counselling and Testing Centres (VCTS) indicate that prevalence rates in these districts are as high as 35 per cent. The national prevalence rate now stands at 13 per cent - having dropped by one percentage point from 14 per cent last year. Homa-Bay, one of the worst affected districts, has a prevalence rate of 34 per cent. But it is the women who have borne the heaviest brunt of the scourge. The outdated practice of wife inheritance has been responsible for this. The once revered custom is now being abused with impunity. According to Mr. Damian Ongewe, 75, the purpose of inheriting a woman was to keep her warm so that she could not have an affair outside her marital home and to take care of the children and property left behind by the deceased. These days, however, the in-laws insist on sleeping with the widow even when it is apparent that the husband has died of Aids. Worse still, they shun any parental responsibility and grab any property left behind by the deceased.
Ms Lorna Akeyo, 26, a volunteer counsellor at Women Fighting Aids in Kenya (WOFAK) Homa-Bay branch – and a person living with HIV/AIDS cannot hide her disgust for the custom. “I got infected upon my husband’s death. The inheritor, who was already married to two wives, inherited another woman only three days after inheriting my co-wife and I. It’s a terrible custom”, she moans. On realising how promiscuous their inheritor was, Akeyo and her co-wife kicked him out and settled for another inheritor – this time a fisherman. He too was kicked out but it was too late. Akeyo developed serious illnesses and was referred to WOFAK for counselling and later to the Homa-Bay District Hospital where she was tested for HIV and found sero-positive.
Mrs. Roseline Abong’o, another Homa-Bay woman living with HIV laments: “I lost my husband in a road accident in 1997. I would still be healthy today had I refused to be inherited. I believe it is the inheritor who infected me because he died soon after”
The soaring cases of HIV/AIDS have been exacerbated by professional inheritors known in Dholuo as JOKOWINY. Due to the high level of awareness already attained, some men refuse to inherit their sisters-in-law. But the adamant ones go out of their way to fetch professional inheritors who are paid a fee for services rendered. This is done in order to cleanse the woman. Sadly though, it is these “professionals” who contribute to the high spread of the virus as they move from homestead to homestead, inheriting women, some of whose husbands have died of Aids. Unfortunately, this outdated practice of wife inheritance continues to draw support even from among the Luo elite. When the former Nyanza Provincial Commissioner Mr. Joseph Kaguthi advised the community to discard the practice, he found himself stepping on sore toes and had to be hounded out of Nyanza.
High levels of poverty in the riparian districts have also contributed a great deal to the spread of HIV. After losing their husbands – not necessarily to Aids, most women turn to commercial sex as a means of livelihood and eventually end up being infected. Then, on the shores of Lake Victoria, fishing is the main occupation. One is either fishing or selling fish. But custom bars women from venturing into the lake to fish. It is widely believed the spirits of the sea-male spirits which arise at dawn-could be easily provoked by the presence of a woman in their territory. This can result into tragedies at sea. Taking advantage of this, the fishermen have imposed an unwritten rule on the female fishmongers – “No sex, no fish”. That means the randy fishermen force the women to sleep with them in return for a supply of fish even after paying the standard price. Since the fishermen have multiple sexual partners, they have infected the women fishmongers who are now dying at an alarming rate.
A woman fishmonger who requested anonymity said in desperation: “I would rather sleep with them and get my supply of fish to sell. If I fail to do that, my children will go hungry.” And Mr John Owango, a Homa Bay fisherman does not mince his words: “Nothing goes for nothing. Sex first, then money”. This is a practice that has been going on for years along the fish landing beaches. Outrageous as it may sound, women who refuse to succumb to the fishermen’s advances soon find themselves out of business. It is a practice that has left many dumbfounded. “The level of awareness is more than 90 per cent in this area. But culture being dynamic, it is difficult to understand why people can’t change their behaviour”, observes Mrs Mary Mboya, a public health nurse with the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF). Mboya – who works with widows and orphans within Homa Bay district – says behaviour change is a process that takes a long time.
However, some light seems to be at the end of the tunnel as local Non Governmental organisations – Training and Advocacy for Community Initiative (TACI) and Uhai Lake Forum in collaboration with the United Nations Children’s Fund(UNICEF) are determined to rescue young girls from the fish landing beaches. Uhai, Kiswahili for life, is a forum that brings together fishing communities in the lake region. During celebrations to mark Lake Victoria Day on April 12, Uhai secretary in Nyando district MS. Caren Owiti said: “Women need economic empowerment to end this exploitation being fuelled by poverty”. Already, TACI has started a training programme to rescue young women from the beaches. The training focuses mainly on dress making. So far, 21 women have graduated with certificates. “My life is completely changed. I will no longer suffer at the hands of fishermen. I will use my tailoring knowledge to feed my children, sisters and brothers”, said MS Roselyn Oneko, one of the graduands.