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Women bear the brunt of HIV/AIDS

Studies reveal that young women are more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS than their male counterparts.
Christian Benoni

The more than fifty girls sat attentively as they watched the captivating dance that accompanied the soft music. The message therein was powerful and heart-rending. It was about the long path of suffering for a 17-year-old girl named Miriam, who had succumbed to HIV/AIDS.

Soon after, a lecture on the same followed, laying emphasis on the word “Abstinence”. Now, almost pin-drop silence filled the room, as the speaker, 20-year-old Sipra Atieno, living with HIV/AIDS, gave an account of her experience. Tension was almost tangible. The audience was moved to tears.

“I was diagnosed with the disease two years ago, after the death of my boyfriend. It was my first time to have sex. I did not know someone would be infected on the first day. See what AIDS has done to me,” the frail looking Atieno remarked.

“I have come here to tell you that AIDS is bad and it destroys. If only I would turn back the clock, I would never have had sex. I do not want you to end up like me. I urge you; be careful, say no to sex, abstain”, she added.

“I dropped from college because many times I was very sick and forced to miss lessons frequently,” she said at the December 12 event organized by Maarifa Community Based Organisation (Maarifa CBO) in Nairobi’s eastlands region. The group raises HIV/AIDS awareness among girls aged between 14-24, a crucial stage where the disease is highly prevalent.

According to Dr Patrick Orege, director of the National Aids Control Council (NACC), a government body mandated to coordinate nationwide activities seeking to scale up the fight against the disease, young women in Kenya are more prone to HIV/AIDS than their male counterparts.

“The prevalence rate among women aged 15-24 is 6 percent compared with slightly over 1 percent among men, and the majority of new infections among women occur in the ages 15-24 years,” he observed recently.

It is for this reason that Maarifa CBO has embarked on educating girls in schools, colleges and estates across Nairobi on HIV/AIDS, holding abstinence as a core value.

“Mostly we preach abstinence. You are safe when you abstain. Condom use is not an option because it is not 100 percent effective; it may break. When you keep telling young people to use condoms, you are encouraging them to have sex,” Liz Omollo, the organisation’s programmes coordinator said.

However, this issue has been contested by the latest report of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), which says abstinence may not work in cases of rape. “Choosing to abstain or have safer sex is not an option for the millions of women around the world who endure rape and sexual violence,” says the report ‘AIDS Epidemic Update December 2004.’

During the launch of the document November 23, Mark Stirling, director of the UNAIDS Regional Support Team said “we will not get a reduction in AIDS unless there is a reduction in rape cases.” His remarks followed police report that revealed an upward trend in rape incidences in Kenya.

The police figures released early November indicate 1,675 rape cases in 2000, 1,987 in 2001 while in 2002, there were 2013 cases. In 2003, 2,308 cases were recorded compared to 1,895 in the first eight months of 2004.

Women parliamentarians in the East African country have taken up the matter by proposing a Sexual Offences Bill seeking to castrate rapists. The Bill, envisaged to change the HIV/AIDS trend among girls and women, is due to be tabled in parliament.

Health experts have cited female-controlled condoms as another measure of countering the epidemic among girls and women. Nevertheless, these are not widely acceptable and available in Kenya. Besides, they are significantly more expensive than the male condom. Approximately, a female condom costs about USD 3.1 compared with USD 0.13 for the male condom.

But despite the wide availability, affordability and knowledge on the male condom, there is hue and cry about the low use of the facility among sexually active women.

Statistics from NACC indicate that of the 18 percent of sexually active women in Kenya who engage in higher risk sex, only a quarter of them use condoms. Further data from the institution reveals that only 12 percent of young women aged between 15-24 years used a condom during their first sexual encounter.

Women activists have often maintained that for the fight against HIV/AIDS to be won, violence against women and girls must be addressed adequately. “Women do not have sexual rights. Up to this day, there are women who get beaten by their spouses for taking family planning pills, others for asking their partners to wear condoms,” noted Bella Matabanadzo of the UN Secretary General’s Taskforce on Women and AIDS.

The UNAIDS report says violence has accelerated the spread of HIV/AIDS in women and girls. “The fear of violence prevents many women from accessing HIV information, from getting tested and seeking treatment, even when they strongly suspect they have been infected.”

Laws to contain such violence come in handy. In Kenya, the Domestic Violence Bill, drafted in 2001 is currently pending before parliament.

It is hoped that such a Bill, if passed into law, would help reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS in Kenya where more than 2 million people, out of a population of about 30 million, are living with the virus that causes Aids.

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