Kenya: Women defy custom to fight AIDS

A group of Muslim women in the dusty town of Lodwar, northern Kenya, are breaking with tradition to speak openly about HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
As in many Muslim societies, the people of Lodwar, in the district of Turkana, have a deep-seated aversion to discussing sexual matters, but the reality of the epidemic has forced them to educate themselves about it.
Many of the female members of Lodwar's mosque attend a weekly meeting where they give each other support and advice. Each of the 51 members is asked to donate 50 shillings (US$0.70) every week, which is then given to a member in need or on a rotational basis. The small sums raised come in very handy for some of the elderly women in the group who are looking after children orphaned by AIDS and women who are already infected and need additional care.

Merlin, a UK-based medical NGO, has visited the women's group to provide voluntary counselling and testing services and HIV/AIDS education.

"At first it was very difficult, as many Muslims refuse testing; many believe that you are working as a commercial sex worker [if you go for testing]," said Amina Bashair, the group's chairwoman. "Once we had received some education, we realised that it was not true and would not bring shame on our religion, so some of our group volunteered for testing."

The meetings encourage the women to be more open with their questions about HIV/AIDS. "It was the first time I had heard of such a thing; it was very informative," said Alima Nakwa, an elderly member of the group after the Merlin visit.

"Before, people from the mosque were dying but we didn't know how," said Rukia Imoni, another member. "Now we know that it was AIDS and [will] not be scared."

The use of condoms is rare in Turkana, and some of the women said they would have no idea where to get them. During Merlin's educational session they were shown how to use a condom, a first for most of them. "It was something so strange to me; what it is and what it can do," said Imoni.

The risks to the women in Turkana, where the HIV prevalence is 11.4 percent - twice the national average - are many: "The men are polygamous and this increases the risk; some men are also unfaithful," said Bashair. The continued use of traditional birth attendants was also "a problem ... as they [birth attendants] do not have access to gloves while birthing", raising the risk of contracting HIV during childbirth if either the woman or the birth attendant is HIV positive. Men have not been targeted; although they are keen to learn, they feel they need a male educator to teach them. "If a woman was to teach HIV then there should be a curtain [separating her from the men in the Mosque]," said Yahya Asuman, administrator of the Lodwar Islamic Centre, adding that most men wanted to be educated according to Islamic rules. "Only when we get letters from the Ministry of Health do we announce such things."

The Mosque's Imam [senior Muslim scholar] rarely talks about HIV/AIDS or related issues.

Teaching such a conservative society about HIV/AIDS is proving no easy task for the women's group. Turkana has one of Kenya's lowest literacy rates, and the women complained that besides being unable to read the existing literature on the disease, the messages themselves were not aimed at Muslims, who needed to be educated in line with their religious beliefs.

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