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Kenya: HIV-Positive Women Doing It For Themselves

Through self-help groups, HIV-positive women in Nairobi's Korogocho slums are rejecting the stigma associated with the disease and supporting themselves.
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A Women Fighting AIDS in Kenya (WOFAK) drop-in centre. Photograph by genvessel.

Nairobi, Kenya:

14 years ago, Edith Nyambura learnt she was HIV-positive. Her life was turned upside down. There was a strong stigma regarding HIV-sufferers in Kenya and her family expelled her from her home, forcing Edith to live in Nairobi’s Korogocho slums.

Today, Edith leads a 30-member Mapatano Self Help Group for HIV-positive women, an organisation which aims to help HIV-positive women living in the slums be self-sufficient and independent as well as help reduce the stigma associated with the disease. Through the income-generating activities, the women can sustain their daily needs and gain the respect of their communities. The group also serves as an emotional support and provides a setting in which women can share their problems and encourage one another.

Kenya has been badly affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, with an estimated 1.5 million Kenyans living with the disease. Although still high, Kenya’s HIV prevalence rate has dropped over the past decade to 6.3%, a trend some attribute to greater awareness and education. By working at the ground level, groups like Edith’s are hoping to help more and more women living with HIV get the emotional and financial support they need.

A new start

When diagnosed with HIV in 2005, Jacinta Wangeci, a mother of two, felt suicidal. However, an intervention by the Kenya Network of Women with AIDS (KENWA) convinced her life is worth living. She was taught to not to self-stigmatise and to develop resilience to support herself. Today, she earns her living and is able to pay her rent through activities with the group. “I’m no longer being chased out for non-payment of rent,” says a smiling Jacinta. Dubbed ‘places of healing’, the 7000-member KENWA support groups have helped many like Jacinta.

Asunta Wagura, a HIV-sufferer since 1988 and founder of KENWA, stigma has reduced over the years and more have sought support from those who understand their problems. “Our support groups’ halls are always full,” she says. KENWA also helps with training and financial support.

Another group, Women Fighting AIDS in Kenya (WOFAK), trains HIV-positive women in business management and book-keeping before giving them loans of Sh10,000 ($120) to Sh20,000 ($240) to start small businesses. According to Caroline Odada, WOFAK’s project coordinator, these women then pay back the money in small weekly increments. The money paid back is recycled and loaned to other women. Within Nairobi’s Kibera and Korogocho slums and low-income areas such as Kayole, WOFAK has worked with over 10,000 women since formation in 1994.

Doing it themselves

Edith’s Mapatano Self Help Group was helped by KENWA which bought the women a candle-making machine and trained them to weave baskets. They also sell grain, charcoal and omena (sardines). On a good month, they make around $300 – enough to sustain daily needs but not enough for longer-term costs such as children’s education – but they believe they could make more if they had another candle-making machine since candles are in high demand during power blackouts.

This way of living has helped sustain the livelihoods of these women but their self-reliance has also earned the group respect from the broader Korogocho community.

“It’s changed the way people perceived us…[we were seen] as beggars when we got infected,” says Edith. Today, she explains, the Korogocho community don’t see them as HIV-sufferers but as business women.

For Margaret Anyango, however, the main benefits of the group have been emotional. Margaret suffered from depression after she was diagnosed in 1997 and felt totally hopeless, but now, as she runs the candle-making machine, she smiles and is happy she no longer has to beg. “I now know having the virus is not the end of life,” she says.

The self-help group has changed the lives of its 30 members, but the group also has bigger plans for the future. In the long term, they hope one day to open a learning institution to train other HIV-positive women. In the meantime, however, they hope to acquire a Posho mill or start a poultry project which Edith feels will increase their incomes and provide them with nutritious food sources.

According to KENWA’s Wagura, the group have approached some Kenyan financial institutions to fund this, but most are reluctant to offer the loans. Regardless, Edith is hopeful for the future. “I feel I live life like any other ordinary person without HIV,” she says and encourages other sufferers not to sit and wait to die while being fed by their families, but to “find something to do to sustain you”.

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