On Friday, the U.K. charity S.A.F.E. was featured in the first of two one-hour documentaries, Corrie Goes to Kenya. In these programs, four actors from the popular British TV soap opera Coronation Street work with S.A.F.E.’s own Kenyan actors to spread information about HIV and AIDS. The episodes follow their journey as they create and perform a series of soap-like plays.
Vixely has had the pleasure of working with and meeting S.A.F.E. when the team was last in NYC as supporters of their mission to promote sexual education around the world. Vixely recently spoke with Katie Duncan, a writer and volunteer for S.A.F.E. to learn more abou the show, which has received great acclaim already, and to understand why education—particularly for women—is vital for a healthy society.
Katie Duncan: S.A.F.E.’s unique development model demonstrates how theatre can be used as an accessible and engaging way to overcome the barriers to changing people’s behaviour within communities. The use of drama opens up new channels of communication, enabling people to hear life-saving health messages, and encourage them to access services. As the documentary highlights, these performances can provide people with the information, skills and attitudes that enable them to take the first steps to changing their own lives for the better.
But why is this work still necessary, over two decades into the HIV/AIDS epidemic? Much press coverage recently has talked about ‘the end of AIDS’ and a ‘cure’. The need for basic HIV education—such as condom use and the importance of testing–can be seen as outdated and insubstantial. Surely we can assume everyone is aware of these methods of keeping safe by now?
The sad fact is that there remains in Kenya, like much of sub-Saharan Africa, widespread discrimination and misinformation surrounding HIV/AIDS. People continue to die of ignorance of the disease, with little or no access to information about transmission, prevention or treatment.
Alarmingly, it was acknowledged at the recent International AIDS Conference in Washington that the epidemic is becoming an increasingly female one, with new evidence showing the inextricable link between HIV and issues that disproportionately affect women such as gender-based violence. There were calls for a new international approach with effective programmes that will foster attitudinal and behavioural change in societies where the harsh stigmatization of HIV affects women the most.
In Kenya alone, women and girls are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS, with 8% of women being infected compared to 4.3% of men. In Sub-Saharan Africa, women make up 60% of those infected with HIV. The risk of infection is increased by a high prevalence of sexual violence; inadequate access to reproductive health services and contraception; HIV status and abandonment as a barrier to financial independence; and the necessity for many women to engage in (often unprotected) transactional sex.
All of the factors effecting women’s health are compounded by a deficit of education and the majority of illiterate Kenyans are women. A Kenyan study has indicated that girls who stay in school are four times less likely to be sexually active than those who drop out, reducing the incidence of HIV and early pregnancy dramatically. Yet sexual violence is an expected and accepted part of the educational experience of Kenyan girls: UNESCO estimates that 85% of Kenyan girls experience sexual harassment from teachers, and 89% experience rape, sexual violence or harassment from male pupils. This statistic reflects the devastating truth that sexual violence is a normalised part of Kenyan society.
Behind these statistics are the real stories of women who experience unprecedented stigma and discrimination within their communities. What circumstances might you find yourself in as a woman living with HIV in Kenya? One example is Teresa, 25, who is pregnant and HIV positive. She already has a five year old daughter who is also HIV positive and has rickets as a result of severe malnutrition. As well as coping with the disease herself and caring for her daughter, Teresa is abused by both her husband, in denial of his own status as HIV positive, and the community in which they live. Her children cannot play outside because they are bullied for their HIV status. Forced to sneak out of their home and hide at night, they sleep in the bush until her husband leaves the home each morning.
Or take May, who lives with her mother, grandmother and five children in a one-bedroom shack. Her grandmother sleeps outside the home each night as there is no space inside. May is left with no choice but to hide her HIV status or the whole family would be chased out of their community and left with nothing.
The Washington Conference emphasised the need for a significant change in attitudes within societies and societal institutions, where a lack of education about the epidemic prevails. Speakers stressed that these changes must centre on the empowerment of women and girls: promoting their dignity, self-esteem and the confidence to transform social norms.
Over the past decade, S.A.F.E has made a considerable impact on the lives of women in Kenya and continues to work on changing attitudes, so that women like Teresa and May do not have to continue surviving in their present conditions. Through large-scale and accessible public theatre, women are educated about the existence of post-exposure prophylaxis treatment to help reduce the risks of contracting HIV after rape, and women can learn about ways for mothers to not transmit HIV/ AIDS to their children during childbirth (PMTCT). As gender inequality and the prevalence of sexual violence arise as prominent themes throughout S.A.F.E.’s work, this also promotes an open dialogue within communities, allowing women to become more confident and empowered in challenging the stigma and discrimination that exists around them.
After hearing about the issues that surround HIV and knowing what the world response is from Washington, it is hard to comprehend how such prejudice can still exist for women throughout the world living with HIV. The work S.A.F.E. is committed to delivering for Kenyan women can only be sustained through vital and generous support, but the greatest challenge will be spreading awareness to ensure that all women, everywhere, unite to fight this inexcusable stigma.
For more information on S.A.F.E. visit www.safekenya.org. Thank you to Katie Duncan at S.A.F.E. from Vixely.