Sabahi (Washington, DC)

11 February 2013

Kenya: Widowed HIV-Positive Women in Kibera Fight Cultural Stigma

Nairobi — Susan Odieny, 50, was ostracised by her community and has had to fight cultural stigmas associated with widows and single mothers since her husband died of AIDS in 1985.

Immediately after the burial of her husband in Siaya, Nyanza Province, Odieny said she and her two young daughters were thrown out of their home when she rejected the customary offer of marriage from her brother-in-law.

"I had always thought that the cruel [stories] widows and female children go through were not real until it happened to me," she told Sabahi. "Dejected and downtrodden, I was left with my two children, to land in Kibera."

To sustain her family, Odieny started a hair salon and charcoal business in the Nairobi neighbourhood.

In 2004, she was hospitalised due to a stomach growth and tested positive for HIV. "The test results came as shock, but after counselling I saw the need to fight for life," she said.

Unbeknownst to her, she had contracted the virus from her husband but had never been tested or diagnosed due to her lack of access to medical care.

After the diagnosis, Odieny said she wanted to do something to help women like her who had been abandoned by society. So, in 2006, she started a group for HIV-positive widows called Action Speaks Widows Group.

The group helps women learn how to manage their disease and properly take their medications. In addition, women in the group help take care of others afflicted with the disease by going on home visits and sharing information with families in the community.

"Generally, the lack of knowledge among widows on how to cope and take care of themselves after the deaths of their husbands is the biggest challenge we battle with," she said. "Most widowed women never imagine they can still be useful to society and become independent after their husbands pass on."

In 2007, the 11-member group opened a school for vulnerable children in the Kibera slums, including those orphaned by HIV/AIDS.

The hardest task has been the provision of water, sanitation and meals for all the children who need help, Odieny said. When the school opened, 74 children were enrolled, but with only two classrooms and limited resources, that number has dropped to 46 children between the ages of two and ten.

Odieny uses some of the proceeds from her salon to fund the group and the school. In addition, the women have started to sell beads and candles, and plan to venture into other enterprises such as making and selling t-shirts to raise funds for the group and its initiatives.

"I take care of all these children as if they were my own because I know pretty well what they are going through," she said. "If we did not give them a place here, they would probably be out there on the streets -- a very tormenting scene any mother would not wish to see or imagine."

Fighting negative stereotypes

Since its inception, the group has played a positive role in changing societal attitudes towards widowed women, said Dolline Onyango, one of the group's members.

She said the group invites motivational speakers and life coaches to teach the women ways to fight negative stereotypes.

"Every woman in this group is now a champion against outdated cultural practices," she said. "We speak to the general public on the risks of HIV/AIDS and the need to protect yourself from being infected. We teach those already infected how to live a positive life."

Judith Akinyi, 30, another member of the group, said apart from providing emotional support, together the women learn vocational skills to raise funds for the school and their own families.

Before joining the group, Akinyi sold an illegal brew called chang'aa to provide for her family.

"I used to run into trouble with the authorities who would raid my home, harass me and leave me humiliated," she said, praising the improvements in her life since joining the group. "We have learnt entrepreneurial skills and through the sale of beads and candles we earn our living legally. Now I have peace of mind."

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