Blame game doesn’t help address sexual vulnerability of girls

Kanze was raped when she was 13, leaving her pregnant and infected with HIV. To end adolescent AIDS governments and civil society groups must work together to address the sexual vulnerability of young people.

“Finding I was pregnant and dropping out of school was not the hardest thing to deal with – that was finding out I was infected with HIV,” whispers Kanze, 15, as if afraid that people may hear what she is saying.

Kanze is among the 8,000 plus adolescents (aged 15-19) who were newly infected with HIV in Kenya in 2013. And globally that year, nearly 120,000 adolescents (aged 10-19) died of AIDS (UNAIDS All In Kenya fact sheet). It is the second largest cause of deaths among adolescents globally (UNAIDS).

Young people in Kenya can find themselves at increased risk from HIV when there are high levels of concurrent sexual relations, sex with older partners, sexual exploitation and abuse, and selling sex. Socio-cultural factors – such as resistance to using condoms, the sexual vulnerability of young girls, poverty and the use of alcohol and drugs – can also play a part.

Illegal vuguvugus

Two years ago Kanze was raped after sneaking out of home to attend a ‘vuguvugu’ – a funeral fundraising disco, which resulted in her getting pregnant and also her HIV infection. Vuguvugus were banned by the government but still continue in the coastal town of Mombasa and among the Mijikenda community, where they are held to raise money to meet funeral and burial expenses.

Kanze blames her mother for her predicament. She says: “My mother, who sells mnazi (local brew), refused to take me to hospital after the incident, claiming I had brought it upon myself. She instead agreed to settle out of court and was given some money and two goats by the parents of the boys who assaulted me. Now I have a child whose father I don’t know and HIV!”

With limited opportunities to support herself and her child, Kanze now helps her mother to sell mnazi in her ‘mangwe’ or mnazi den. Like her mother, she occasionally sells sex to customers.

Failure to enforce ban

Unlike Kanze, Pili, 16, was born with HIV and is in primary class 7. For her, vuguvugus are an opportunity to earn a little money. “I don’t do it for free, I get paid,” she says.

Despite policy there is poor enforcement of the legal ban on vuguvugus.

“It is true we give permits for funeral gathering for the bereaved to make burial arrangements for the deceased but they are not for vuguvugus. Our permits are for during the day only and should not go beyond 7pm, unlike the vuguvugus which continue throughout the night,” acknowledges Chief Machache, assistant local administrative officer. He is vehemently against young people attending vuguvugus in the Bamburi area of Mombasa.

Authorities and parents blame each other

According to Chief Machache, unprotected sexual encounters – both forced and consensual – mainly happen at night. This has resulted in many girls in the area dropping out of school due to unwanted pregnancies. However, there is no proper mechanism to follow up on whether the rules and stipulations of the permits are adhered to and he points an accusing finger at parents and guardians for not keeping their children in check.

Parents, however, argue that the authorities should do more. “The authorities need to ensure all laws are adhered to the letter because our children are out of control and they don’t listen to us anymore. If vuguvugus were banned then why are they still taking place? Officers of the law should stop being lenient and do what it takes to ensure our children go back to school,” says one enraged parent.

However this blame game will not help as addressing sexual violence and abuse is what is really needed to ensure the vulnerability of these girls is reduced, as well as trying to understand why girls are exchanging sex for money. It’s also necessary to ensure they get youth-friendly sexual health and reproductive services, such as rape care services, HIV prevention, family planning counselling and safe sex negotiation skills.

On 17 February, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta helped launch the All In! campaign, which aims to drastically reduce new infections and AIDS-related deaths among adolescents. During the event, President Kenyatta directed the Ministries of Education and Health to set up programmes to engage young people living with HIV and those who are at risk of HIV infection.

In order to end AIDS among adolescents, all partners and stakeholders, including young people themselves, have to work together. It is vital to address the issues which affect young people like Kanze and Pili – and directly involve them in HIV prevention programmes. There is an urgent need for the government to provide resources to prevent HIV among adolescents and set up youth friendly services and programmes to reduce if the number of new infections.

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