At around this time of the year in 2019, I came across a deeply traumatised and miserable teenage girl. My encounter with the then-13-year-old Betty at a rescue centre for abused girls and young women in the outskirts of Nairobi is profoundly ingrained in my mind.
To describe her as miserable is an understatement. She was only four days from a terrible experience that left a deep scar in her heart and life. Having dropped out of school at Standard Eight following the death of her single mother, she took up the responsibility of fending for herself and her sibling by doing odd jobs.
While on one of those missions, in a neighbour’s farm, a group of men working alongside the child viciously attacked her in broad daylight. They raped the girl in turns and left her for dead.
The attack was to completely change Betty’s life. She was not only infected with HIV but also became pregnant and developed a medical condition — constant epileptic attacks, possibly as a result of the deep trauma.
Getting her a secure accommodation was difficult. Potential well-wishers would develop cold feet upon learning of her situation: HIV positive, epileptic and pregnant.
Eventually, she was rescued by one of the most outstanding and compassionate civil society organisations, which runs a shelter for abused girls. She has since delivered her baby and almost recovered from the epilepsy. However, her HIV/Aids condition remains.
Despite her status, and nearly three years later, at the rescue centre, the teenager, who is now in school, has blossomed. She has accepted her situation and religiously takes her medication. Besides, she speaks openly about her status. And the trauma is gone, thanks to psychosocial support and related therapy.
On World Aids Day today, it is important for the government, interest groups and other stakeholders to support adolescents living with HIV/Aids. Let them step up this support by boldly standing for the infected. Betty leads a normal life courtesy of such support.
Calling a spade a spade
To bring down HIV/Aids cases, especially among adolescents, women and girls, we have to be intentional in creating awareness of the disease by calling a spade a spade.
Over the years, comprehensive sexuality education in schools has remained controversial and divisive. And many parents have a problem understanding their children when they get to adolescence.
It’s even more difficult and complicated for parents and guardians to break the news to an adolescent infected by HIV, yet it has to be done.
That, then, makes it urgent for the government, society and communities to embrace related education and awareness creation, fight stigma, provide peer- and other forms of support, including psychosocial, if we are to make progress in the HIV/Aids war.
In addition to the Covid-19 pandemic crisis, there is a looming danger that could take the focus away from addressing the HIV/Aids pandemic and its treatment, exposing those living with the virus, specially, girls and women — reported to be half of the newly infected globally in 2020 — whose immune system has to be boosted through medication.
This is particularly worrying since statistics show 257,000, or 17 per cent, of Kenyans living with HIV are not on antiretroviral treatment.
The best way of living is this year’s theme of the World Aids Day — “End Inequalities. End Aids. End pandemics” — is to treat HIV/Aids as an emergency, alongside the fight against sexual and gender-based violence against women and girls. The violence, which include the regressive female genital mutilation, child marriage and incest, are among the criminalities that drive HIV/Aids.
As UNAIDS observes in highlighting the urgent need to end inequalities that drive pandemics, it is only through bold and audacious action that the world will defeat HIV/Aids, which remains a threat to society, by the 2030 target. It is doable.
Ms Rugene, a consulting editor, is founder, The Woman’s Newsroom Foundation. [email protected]