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Violent men threaten health gains in Kenya.

As Kenya emerges from months of political crises marked by rape and sexual attacks by men, many women in this east African country say they do not have to be caught up in conflict to experience gender violence. For them such violence is a constant presence, often fuelled by the HIV and AIDS epidemic. Ann Auma, a 20-year-old mother of one, is one such woman. Sitting at the offices of Women Fighting Aids in Kenya (WOFAK), an NGO, she stares at her tiny baby of four months-her first. She is here to seek help-she has no income after her husband, the family's sole bread-winner for the last two years, abandoned her recently. 'I have been sick for some time now, and when I was critically ill, the doctor advised me to go for HIV testing, which I did. After testing positive, I was later introduced to antiretroviral (ARV) medicines because my situation was very bad', says Auma, who gets free medicines from a local government clinic.

Auma was married two-and-a-half years ago. Although she would see her husband with other women at times, the last thing the newly-married woman would suspect was that her husband was HIV-positive. 'So when I was told about my status, I did not know how to break the news to him, knowing what kind of person he is', she says. Relaying the doctors' instructions, she told her husband that they could only have sex if he used condoms and that he should get himself tested. 'This was a recipe for chaos in my marriage, and my husband forced me into having unprotected sex even before I had healed. I had big boils in my private parts, had a big swelling on my back which the doctor said was a cancerous growth and I had TB as well'. 'But my husband said it was unheard of for a man to use a condom with his wife-he said condoms are used while having sex with prostitutes and not married women'.

Auma's case is not unique as many Kenyans, especially married men, believe that married couples do not need to use condoms. James Njuguna, a married man says he will never use a condom with his wife. 'I cannot imagine my wife telling me to use a condom with her. Even if she is HIV positive, it means I also have it and we should therefore continue living as usual. Is there a man who can use a condom with his wife for the rest of his life?' he poses. Indeed, a common saying (among men) in Kenya is that, 'one cannot eat a sweet that is wrapped in a paper'-meaning condoms don't give pleasure. At the WOFAK offices, Dorine Odida and Helen Jasianga, both counsellors at the organisation say they struggle with trying to convince men to use condoms with their wives, especially when they may have had unprotected sex. 'Recently we told a man to use a condom because he had inherited his deceased brother's widow (a common African custom), knowing very well that his brother died of AIDS', said Odida. The man ignored their advice and when his wife refused to give in, beat her up saying Kenyan customs do not allow a woman to disobey her husband.

The fact that most Kenyan married women cannot decide when and how to have sex will surely derail efforts by the country to attain the internationally-agreed 2010 health targets, experts, say. Kenya's national targets for HIV and AIDS stress prevention strategies, including increasing availability and access to counselling and testing, and condom promotion. Unfortunately, the prickly issue of gender violence finds no mention. Work by various Kenyan groups to sensities people touches just the tip of the iceberg. Said Jane Thuo, a gender activist: 'Because women are battered by their husbands, they lose their self-esteem and hence fail to negotiate safe sex even when they know their husbands are HIV-positive. Such women suffer from psychological disorders that put them at a very disadvantaged position'. Despite the violence, the National AIDS Control Council says the national HIV and AIDS programme has registered significant progress with adult HIV prevalence down to 5.1 per cent in 2006 from 5.9 per cent in 2005. But the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (KDHS) 2003 shows that marital violence is on the increase, indicating that 40 per cent of married women report having experienced physical violence by their husbands, and 16 per cent report sexual violence.

Nearly half (47 per cent) of married women report having suffered emotional, physical or sexual violence, while 8 per cent have experienced all three forms of violence by their current or most recent husband. Some NGOs do make an effort to work with men in order to address violence against women. The activities range from training male journalists to write about women with sensitivity to forming groups of men who are sensitised against gender violence. 'We target the local authority in order to influence decision-making', said Abisage Were-Ouma, chairwoman of Women United for Peace Initiative (WUPI). 'Because the government is dominated by men, we empower them to make decisions that are gender sensitive'. Happily, not all men see their wives as their playthings. Charles Charo, a taxi driver in Nairobi, and his wife were diagnosed HIV-positive three years ago, and were introduced to antiretroviral therapy (ART). He says, 'Since then, we have used condoms that are provided free of charge at the ART centre. We have adjusted to that kind of life, and we cannot think of sex without a condom as that would lead to re-infections, something we are always told at the ART centre.

Mildred Barasa is a Kenyan journalist. She is Vice Chair of AMWIK, the Association of Media Women in Kenya. We are grateful to Panos (London) for this article.
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Title Annotation:domestic violence
Author:Barasa, Mildred
Publication:Contemporary Review
Geographic Code:6KENY
Date:Sep 22, 2008
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