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KENYA: Male participation crucial to reducing gender violence and HIV

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

NAIROBI, 5 January (PLUSNEWS) - Activists are calling on Kenyan men to become more involved in campaigns to end the widespread physical and sexual abuse of women and girls, a problem that is putting millions of women at greater risk of contracting HIV.

Gender-based violence (GBV) is endemic in Kenya but few cases make it to the courts, while many women suffer a lifetime of abuse in silence.

The link between GBV and HIV is real; rape is a big contributor to HIV/AIDS," said Kennedy Otina, coordinator of Men for Gender Equality Now Network, a project of the African Women's Development and Communication Network (FEMNET).

"Many men have been brought up thinking that a woman has no right to determine what kind of sex she is to have with a man, and that suggesting condoms is not a woman's job but the man's preserve," he added.

FEMNET has designed programmes to raise men's awareness of their potential contribution to ending GBV. They encourage men to be more sensitive to women's needs and become involved in women's health issues. "Men play a very vital role. If any meaningful change is to happen then they are the ones that should bring this change," Otina said.

A 2003 survey revealed that about half the country's women had experienced some form of violence in their lives, while a study by Kenya's National AIDS Control Council in 2002 found that the first experience of sexual intercourse for 25 percent of female respondents aged 12 to 24 was forced.

A sexual offences bill passed in June 2006 has yet to significantly increase the number of prosecutions. In some instances, abusers and rapists were able to avoid the courts by paying off the girl's family, and the stigma attached to sexual violence also prevented families from reporting incidents.

The fact that women and girls carry the larger share of Kenya's AIDS burden has been linked to the pervasiveness of GBV in the country: women are twice as likely to be HIV positive than men, with young women being especially vulnerable. According to the latest figures from UNAIDS, women aged 15 to 24 are five times more likely to be HIV-infected than their male peers.

Carole Nyambura, a programme officer for the Coalition on Violence Against Women in Kenya (COVAW), told PlusNews that women's greater vulnerability to HIV/AIDS had a direct impact on their lack of power in relationships with men.

"GBV and AIDS are twin epidemics of sorts, and they must be handled together if they are to be stamped out," she said. "GBV is a cause of HIV through rape, and is also an effect of GBV - women are often beaten when it is suspected that they may have HIV or may have infected a spouse."

A report by UNAIDS in 2006 pointed to cultural practices such as female genital mutilation, polygamy, early marriage and widow inheritance - in which the wife has to marry a male relative of her deceased spouse - as factors that increased women's risks of contracting HIV - all of them the result of Kenyan women's lack of social power.

Moves to strengthen the position of women in their communities and empower them to be able to refuse sex would need to begin with changing men's attitudes, said Nyambura. "Men have not reached the point where they look at gender-based violence as their concern; they still primarily look at it as a women's issue, when in fact it is an issue that affects society as a whole."

Lack of understanding by men of the consequences and dynamics of GBV initially frustrated FEMNET's work on the issue, said Otina. "But with the right information the men open up. GBV does not just affect women; if we don't bring changes ... we will all suffer."

Nyambura advised organisations wanting to enlist the support of men in ending GBV to tread carefully. "There is a tendency for groups that advocate for an end to GBV to antagonise men, which is not useful; they can be involved without being blamed," she said.

The UNAIDS report recommended more support for male-focused initiatives, and suggested bringing awareness-raising campaigns to places where men felt comfortable, such as bars, churches and at work. According to the report, changes in attitudes should begin with fathers being encouraged to "raise their sons and daughters with the self-respect to prevent violence in the next generation."

Nyambura pointed to a greater openness about the issue of GBV as evidence that some progress was being made. "We are all talking about this issue today - men, women and policymakers," she said. "That in itself is a very big step forward in the battle to change people's perception of GBV."



Recent KENYA Reports
Slow progress in safer-sex services for men who sleep with men,  18/Dec/06
Urgent action needed to avert resistant TB - activists,  13/Dec/06
Government introduces combination therapy for PMTCT ,  4/Dec/06
Activists upset as UK introduces TB screening for visa applicants,  30/Nov/06
Rising drug, alcohol abuse threatens HIV/AIDS gains,  29/Nov/06
· AIDS Media Center
· The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis & Malaria
· International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS
· International HIV/AIDS Alliance

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