Illiteracy, poverty aggravating HIV among northern women

Ignorance and overwhelming poverty are making HIV/AIDS a growing problem in Kenya's northern provinces, with women hit particularly hard, health workers have said.

Noor Sheikh Ahmed, an official at the HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections department of Northeastern Province, told IRIN-PlusNews that the number of cases in the four districts of Garissa, Mandera, Wajir and Ijara had doubled to 20,000 in the past two years, most of them women.

"The [number of] HIV/AIDS patients are increasing at an alarming rate," he said. "People struggle to survive and risk their lives."

HIV prevalence levels in the sparsely populated and predominantly Muslim province are the lowest in the country. A 2003 Demographic and Health survey found that less than 1 percent of people were HIV positive, but that awareness levels and misconceptions about AIDS persisted: only 30 percent of women believed HIV could be avoided. Kenya has a national prevalence of 5.9 percent.

Ahmed said the prevailing strategies to counter the pandemic were more suited to urban settings than northern cultures: for instance, most people in the north could not read HIV messages because overall literacy rates in the province were around 18 percent, and were much lower for women.

"Illiteracy means ignorance. The young girls, forced to marry, and then divorced, are being exposed to the virus every day," said Sofia Abdi, of nongovernmental organisation Womankind. "They are unaware of the risks and how to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS transmission."

The harsh climatic conditions of northern Kenya mean people are forced to compete for limited food and water, making ethnic violence, food insecurity, drought and poverty endemic.

"My father was killed, our livestock stolen ... I had no alternative but to sell my body," said Halima Wario, a young HIV-positive woman who takes care of her three sisters. "Two months after the attack, I moved and started [commercial sex] work."

The chairperson of the cultural women's group in the northwestern town of Samburu, Rebecca Lolosoli, said many women contracted the virus during attacks on their families, and the health consequences of insecurity needed to be taken into consideration.

Womankind's Abdi said violence or disease often left impoverished, illiterate women at the head of young households that needed feeding, clothing and education, which exacerbated the HIV burden on women.

Most girls undergo female genital mutilation, which also exposes them to the risk of contracting HIV. "The campaigns and awareness are not enough; women from this region need to be supported and empowered with skills to protect them against relying on men," she said. "The young girls need to be taken to school and prevented from early forced marriages; many are becoming widows at a very early age."