KENYA: Stigma keeps Asian population from accessing HIV services

Photo: Kenneth Odiwuor/IRIN
Anwar Ali Sharif felt shut out by his community when they found out he was HIV-positive
NAIROBI, 10 March 2011 (PlusNews) - When 20-year-old Jenna,* a Kenyan of Asian descent, told her family two years ago she had tested positive for HIV, they forced her to terminate her pregnancy, forbad her to seek treatment and kept her locked in the house because of the shame she had brought on the family.

She did, however, go against their will and obtained life-prolonging antiretroviral medication at hospital. She now lives with another family who have taken her in and accepted her status.

"When I insisted on seeking treatment, my family chased me away," Jenna told IRIN/PlusNews. "For them it was good if I died slowly rather than shame them by seeking treatment and giving people an opportunity to know my status."

The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics estimates there are about 120,000 Kenyans of Asian - largely South Asian – origin, mainly living in the three major cities of Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu.

According to Anwar Ali Sharif, 36, the only Asian member of the National Empowerment of People Living with HIV/AIDS of Kenya (NEPHAK), stigma is the biggest impediment to Kenyan Asians accessing HIV/AIDS services.

"There is a lot of stigma among Kenyans of Asian origin. Many people who are HIV-positive are locked in the house because it is feared they will shame the family if it is known they are HIV-positive," he said.

He noted that while wealthy Asians could afford to visit private health facilities where no one need know their status, the stigma of visiting the clearly marked comprehensive HIV care clinics in public hospitals kept poorer Asians away from treatment.

Peter Cherutich, head of prevention services at the National AIDS and Sexually transmitted infections Control Programme, says there were no statistics on HIV prevalence among Kenyan Asians and no services tailored specifically to the Asian community as they were expected to receive services like any other Kenyan.

"As part of the Kenyan population, we expect them to access services like everyone [else]," he said. "It is not desirable to have specific surveys targeting certain racial groups unless it is clearly known that by virtue of their race they have certain biologic or behavioural or cultural factors putting them at greater risk for HIV. I don't think this is the case for this population."

But AIDS activists disagree, and say Asians should have messages targeted to their community the same way the government and its partners have tailored messages on HIV to different religious groups, age groups and in different languages for different ethnic communities.

"When you target people as a specific group - as is being done with 'most at-risk populations' - then you are able to effectively offer services to them in a way that suits their needs and uniqueness," said Nelson Otwoma, national coordinator for NEPHAK.

"It is important to remember that despite their close community, sexually they do relate to the native Kenyans and therefore they stand a chance of getting infected," he added. "They tend to rely on family-based networks [for information on HIV] which are... not properly capacitated to carry out such roles effectively."

''For [my family] it was good if I died slowly rather than shame them by seeking treatment and giving people an opportunity to know my status''
"The government can use religious leaders or cultural forums, for example, to reach out to Kenyan Asians with HIV and AIDS information so that they are not left out," said NEPHAK's Sharif.

When he found out his own status, Sharif initially felt shut out by his community; slowly, however, he has taught his immediate family that they have nothing to fear from him and that HIV is not a death sentence.

"Now my immediate family is very supportive and I am even doing my degree course with their help," he said, adding that openness was the best way to address the high levels of stigma in his community.

"I do one-on-one talks with my peers and share with them information about HIV and try to [debunk] certain myths that they have, such as thinking HIV is manufactured in the lab or that condoms have holes," Sharif said. "If I could get other people of Asian origin like me to help, we would make a great impact."

*Not her real name


Theme (s): Care/Treatment - PlusNews, HIV/AIDS (PlusNews), Prevention - PlusNews, PWAs/ASOs - PlusNews, Stigma/Human Rights/Law - PlusNews,

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

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