In traditional African society, a woman’s place is in the home. Yet when it comes to fighting the HIV/Aids pandemic, it is women who are taking the lead. The disease is shaking up gender relations in Kenya.
Caroline Sande was an unemployed housewife when she found out she was H-I-V positive five years ago. When she went public about her status, her husband walked out, leaving her to raise their two children on her own.
Today, Ms Sande is the executive director of her own community based organisation, Campaigners for an Aids Free Society, or CAFS. She has a busy schedule, travelling the continent to attend workshops, lobbying outside parliament, sensitising employers about the virus and caring for the sick.
It took a lot of guts to turn her life around.
Ms. Sande says she got her strength from the example set by other women living with H-I-V/Aids – and the need to support her children.
She says, "When I started interacting with these other Aids support groups, that is when I gathered my courage. Then because I am also not employed. I decided there was no need of just staying at home. I had to come out and fend for my kids. I had to pay rent, pay school fees. If you see those women who come out in the public, these women play a very big role in fighting the H-I-V and Aids. That is what made me in fact come out so I would also fit in their shoes."
Kenyan men are having a harder time facing up to the realities of HIV/Aids, Ms. Sande explains.
She says, "Men believe that this is a women’s disease. They don’t want to be associated with H-I-V and Aids. It’s just recently when we have men coming out. But they are still not very open. Because when we even have our group therapies, you’ll find that in a group of 200 women you might only see between two to three men. They keep on saying that is a women’s disease, women are the ones who are bringing this disease. When we even meet with them in our meetings, they keep on saying that is a women’s disease and women should fight it."
Mike Onyango, who heads one of the few men’s organisations, Movement of Men Against Aids in Kenya, says men are scared of losing their jobs if they go public about their status.
He says, "Most of the time women depend so much on men to provide for maybe foodstuffs and things like that. If, let’s say, a person is sacked from work because of their H-I-V status then the whole family loses."
Others, like Sophie Muthoni Paul, an activist with CAFS, believes men are scared of telling their multiple sexual partners that they are infected with H-I-V/Aids.
She says, "The African men, you know, most of them are polygamous. Some of them keep wives and mistresses. That’s one of the reasons. It would affect where he has had relationships, either with the wives or mistresses."
One reason women are at the forefront of the fight against Aids is because they are the ones who have borne the brunt of the disease, as Pamela Ateka, a volunteer with Women Fighting Aids in Kenya, explains.
He says, "In WOFAK, women came together because most of them had lost their husbands because of Aids. So they needed to support each other in terms of psycho-social support and also in terms of financially. So that’s why the women came together because they needed each other."
Women generally find it easier to talk about their personal issues than men. This has made it easier for them to speak about H-I-V/Aids, both among themselves and in public.
They are now the ones leading the fight against Aids in Kenya today.
As a result, Ms Ateka says, Kenyan women are becoming empowered.
She says, "The major trend right now is that women are more confident and women are really going out there. Men are gaining respect for women because women are at the moment really taking up so much leadership roles. I think it’s time for women to really do that, especially in African countries. Because we have seen that most of our men rarely help us out. And it’s now upon us to help ourselves. So women are really going out and trying to support their families, they’re taking up leadership, they are also getting into politics and I think that’s a really good thing."
An estimated 700 Kenyans die from Aids every single day. There are already almost one million Aids orphans in the country.