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Kenyan Government Publishes Guide to Curb Spread of HIV/AIDS - 2004-03-10

The Kenyan government has unveiled a guide designed to shake up traditions in relationships between men and women as a way of combating the spread of AIDS.

The National AIDS Control Council's guide explains how men and women experience HIV/AIDS differently and the social, cultural, physical and economic factors that make women more vulnerable to HIV infection.

It also gives instructions on how the government and the private sector can give women and men equal power to avoid HIV/AIDS infection.

The council's document says women in Kenya face many challenges that may prevent them from being able to avoid HIV/AIDS infection, even though they are much more vulnerable to the disease.

The head of the AIDS organization, POLICY Project, Dr. Leah Wanjama, says 1.4 million Kenyan women between the ages of 15-49 are HIV-infected, compared with 900,000 men of the same age group.

"The biological makeup of women and girls also predisposes them to high infection," she said. "Concentration of HIV virus in semen is said to be eight times more than the vaginal secretions, which means that, in a sexual encounter, women are many times more likely to be infected by affected men than the other way."

Yet, she says, most women are still powerless to ask their partners to practice safe sex. Women doing so, she says, are likely to be abused, accused of being unfaithful or even thrown out of their homes.

By contrast, Kenyan Minister of Gender, Sports, Culture and Social Services Najib Balala says, men are culturally pressured to have many sexual partners to prove their manhood.

Mr. Balala says men receive little instruction on sexual issues, and are being guided largely by cultural and social customs that give them the sexual advantage.

Mr. Balala says the key to avoiding HIV/AIDS transmission is for both partners to have the power and freedom to negotiate safe sex.

"To contract or avoid infection is largely determined by one's gender," he said. "This determination rests on which gender has more power than the other at a given time in matters of sex, i.e. who has sex with whom, where and how. It is this power issue that serve[s] to put both men and women at risk of contracting or passing on the virus to an unsuspecting partner or a helpless partner."

Speakers at a ceremony unveiling the guide said AIDS policies and programs need to be planned so that women can have more power to protect themselves against HIV infection, and men can shake off the social and cultural stereotypes that see women as sexually inferior.