1 July 2007

Kenya: Women Unable to Negotiate for Safe Sex

Nairobi — The Catholic Church has reiterated its opposition to the use of condoms at a recently concluded HIV/Aids conference. But the Anglican Church, led by Archbishop Benjamin Nzimbi, has called on discordant couples to use condoms.

Morality, which is the guiding principle of the Church's position, must be upheld argued Archbishop John Njue, who is also the chairman of the Kenya Espiscopal Conference. But the Chairperson of the National Aids Control Council, Prof Miriam Were, said prevention was the primary focus and asked the church to lead in teaching the public how to avoid HIV infection.

She urged the church not to vigorously oppose preventive methods that may benefit those outside their fold. As different groups take opposing stances on the issue, women are gearing up for their first global Aids conference to be held in Nairobi on July 4-7.

The conference brings together over 1,500 women of all ages and stakeholders to discuss the impact HIV/AIDS has on women and recognise the leadership women from across the world have demonstrated in bringing a solution to the pandemic.

The event is organised by the World Young Women Christian Association. The condom debate and numerous Aids conferences 26 years after the first case was reported is an indication that the pandemic is not about to go away.

Inequality in power relations

Aids continues to claim lives and majority of its victims are women who are at a greater risk of HIV infection because of their physiology and limited bargaining power on safe sex. Because of the inequality in power relations, a woman cannot negotiate with her husband over condom use even if he is infected or has multiple sexual partners.

The female condom, on the other hand, is expensive and out of reach for many women. It is also said to be cumbersome. Statistics released at the recent 8th Triennial Commonwealth Women's Affairs Ministers Meeting indicated that women and girls in Commonwealth countries make up a third of all HIV infections.

At the meeting, whose theme was "Financing Gender Equality for Development and Democracy" held in Kampala, Uganda, it emerged that women aged between 15 and 24 in sub-Saharan Africa - the region most prominently represented in the Commonwealth - are twice more likely to be infected with the virus than men of the same age. Sub-Saharan Africa, which has only 10 per cent of the world's population, is the hardest hit by the Aids pandemic, where 60 per cent of its entire population is living with HIV.

HIV/Aids policies not friendly to women

Delegates to the Kampala meeting concluded that women's limited negotiation power for safe sex was one of the greatest obstacles to reducing their vulnerability to HIV.

In addition, policies on HIV/Aids are not friendly to women. For instance, one of the main intervention tools, Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission, emphasises the welfare of the unborn child without consideration for the mother.

The other strategy is the ABC - abstaining, being faithful to one partner or using a condom. Dr Robert Carr, from the University of the West Indies, told the forum that ABC assumes that "we have control over when, and with whom we have sex while this is not always the case". Carr, of the university's Caribbean Centre of Communication for Development, said ABC works well for men and not women.

"The contention is that a good woman has a husband and a good wife has sex with her husband, and does not say no even if he is infected or has multiple partners.

"If a couple realises it is infected, the woman is highly stigmatised and often blamed for bringing HIV into the family," he said. Mrs Nyardazai Gumbonzvanda, Regional Director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (Unifem) East and Horn of Africa concurred, comparing the situation with other retrogressive cultural practices. "Just look at Female Genital Mutilation. A young girl has no say over the practice. She also has no say over the tools the circumciser uses," said Nyaradzai. Aids will continue to wear a woman's face because it goes beyond negotiating for safe sex.

"What happens when a woman is negative and her husband is positive? Does she even have the powers to ask him to go for voluntary testing and counselling?" Nyaradzai posed.

What came out clearly from the meeting was that while every sexually active man and woman is at risk, there is an urgent need to implement policies that empower women. In this way, they would have equal power relations in negotiating for safe sex and saying 'No' to a HIV positive husband. There is also need to focus on men, as many do not easily accept that they are infected.

Participants heard that in Malawi, men who know their condition seek treatment outside their provinces so that their wives and relatives do not get to know. Others take their drugs secretly away from home, say in the office.

Ugandan First Lady, Mrs Janet Museveni, called on countries to develop Aids vaccines. "My appeal to all members of the Commonwealth is to play their part in finding an Aids vaccine to enable women protect themselves," said Mrs Museveni. "Heavily affected countries should support vaccine trials and invest in research capacity-building including training the next generation of researchers.

They should actively incorporate research on an Aids vaccine and other forms of prevention into their national strategies," she added.

Saying "the promises and declarations have been many", the First Lady hoped the world would now act to save generations of women and children from the scourge. "There is need to mobilise additional expertise and funds for creating a long-term supportive environment for global Aids vaccine policies," said Mrs Museveni.

Ms Rachel Manyanja, the Gender Adviser to the UN Secretary-General, said for gender equality to be sustained and equal power relations to be achieved, there is need to quantify national gender needs. "Scaling up gender related allocations and effective mobilisation of resources can enable women to effectively participate in decision making, including negotiating for safe sex," said Manyanja.

It was noted that many countries should strive to be like the little-known Tonga in the Australian Continent, where there is no known case of Aids or HIV infection.

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