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Kenyan Women Seek Strategies Against AIDS - 2004-02-20


Women from across Kenya are attending a national AIDS conference aimed at teaching them how to protect themselves and their families from infection and fight social prejudices associated with the disease. Organizers hope the conference will also challenge policies and practices that lead to discrimination against women infected with HIV.

Thousands of mostly women delegates from across Kenya converged in Nairobi Friday to attend the country's first-ever national HIV/AIDS conference.

The conference is expected to examine AIDS issues as they pertain to women, including discrimination against HIV-infected women and legislative proposals to combat prejudices and protect women's rights.

The advocacy officer for the African Women Development and Communication Network, Mary Wandia, said HIV/AIDS policies must take women's problems into account. "We know there are higher infection rates for women," she said. "When it comes to access to medicine, women are at a disadvantaged position. They're not able to, first of all, afford the expensive anti-retroviral drugs. And then they are not even able to get care."

She said women are traditionally the caregivers in the family and the community, so when they get sick, there are few people to take care of them. They also take the most responsibility for caring for other family members with HIV/AIDS.

Ms. Wandia said women who get infected with HIV are most commonly blamed for being the ones to bring virus into the family, and are often chased away. "[The woman] has to prove that, 'I'm actually not a prostitute, I did not get it (elsewhere), it was from my husband.' In some communities, she will actually be divorced or ostracized by the community," she explained.

Ms. Wandia said a woman has little or no legal protection when her in-laws take away her property and possessions, blaming her for, as Ms. Wandia put it, 'killing our son.'

She said she expects the conference to challenge existing laws, policies and practices that make women more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, or fail to help them once they are living with the scourge. "The conference would be a success if, first of all, it would be able to make visible the specific impacts that HIV has on women and girls," she said, "and then if it would go further ahead, and to make those clear recommendations on where do we need to change our legal framework."

According to UNICEF statistics, about 2.5 million Kenyans are living with HIV/AIDS.

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