State rolls out plan to fight high HIV infection rates among women

File | NATION
A woman tests a client for HIV at a Voluntary Counselling and Testing Centre. The government’s new plan, Mainstreaming Gender in HIV Responses in Kenya, requires all stakeholders to address the specific needs of women at risk of infection.

What you need to know:

  • They will enjoy equality in care and treatment and have increased access to ARVs

Concerned about the high number of women being infected with HIV compared to men, the government has, for the first time in 12 years since HIV was declared a national disaster, launched an aggressive action plan that will see massive resources allocated to programmes targeting women.

The new strategy is aimed at, among other things, cutting the number of new HIV infections among women, which have reached worrying levels and continue to rise. This new intervention will involve providing women, especially young girls and other vulnerable groups, with skills on how to prevent HIV infection.

Those who run HIV programmes are from now on expected to ensure gender equality in care and treatment and to provide the National Aids Control Council (NACC) with concrete results in achieving the targets on reducing HIV infection in women.

The government is also focusing on increased access to antiretroviral drugs to reduce chances of HIV-negative women living with HIV-positive partners – discordant couples – from getting infected.   

Viral load

Several studies have shown that a fall in viral load occasioned by taking antiretroviral drugs significantly reduces the chances of a person who is HIV-positive transmitting the virus to another person. 

“Women are the backbone of our society in areas such as agriculture, health and education, yet HIV is hitting them harder than men,” says NACC Deputy Director, Coordination and Support, Dr Sobbie Mulindi.

“This means failure to have a specific plan to address their situation is going to land this country in a mess and make it difficult to realise some of the targets of Vision 2030 under the Social and Economic pillars.”

It is becoming clearer to HIV experts and governments that the gender dimension of the disease must be tackled.

Released this week, the plan – Mainstreaming Gender in HIV Responses in Kenya – is a response to recent findings that show that despite the many interventions to tackle HIV/Aids in the country in the past 12 years, the number of women infected or living with HIV is increasing at a faster rate than that of male counterparts. 

Most recent studies show HIV prevalence among women aged 15 to 49 years stands at 8.8 per cent compared to 5.5 per cent for men in the same age group.

Hardest hit are widows and divorced women, with an HIV prevalence of 17 per cent and 21 per cent, respectively, notes the government plan.

In Nyanza, which leads with the highest HIV prevalence at 14.9 per cent, one in every two widows is infected with HIV, according to the Kenya Aids Indicator Survey.

Statistics further show that 44 per cent of new infections are occurring between couples in stable relationships, 20 per cent among men and women who engage in casual sex, and 14 per cent among sex workers and their clients, with women bearing the brunt of new infections.

Adolescent girls who are domestic workers, unemployed or have only a primary education are also identified as being among the most vulnerable to the disease. Young women between 15 and 24 are said to be four times more likely to be infected with HIV than men.

Rising unemployment

The current hard economic times and rising unemployment are pushing women further into poverty, with many of them now taking up commercial sex work to eke out a living. In the process, however, they expose themselves to multiple sex partners, one of the key drivers of the disease.

Other women identified as being vulnerable are those in polygamous marriages, in emergency situations, those with disabilities, in steady marriages, orphaned females, Muslim women and discordant couples.

The government plan therefore recommends that the State and other stakeholders ensure gender is in-built in every HIV response both in the public, private and civil society sectors.

This will include incorporation of gender and HIV responses and budgeting in all ministries, including putting in place appropriate monitoring and evaluation indicators. 

Kenyan cultures that oppress or make women vulnerable to HIV infection are also expected to become more gender sensitive.

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