How a polygamous marriage is overcoming the stigma around HIV discordant HIV relationships in Kenya.
Daniel Enjo and his two wives are living proof of the fact that it is possible for partners who test differently for HIV to have safe and loving relationships.
Daniel married his second wife, Electine Malesi, in full knowledge that she was living with HIV while he and his first wife, Dorothy, were negative. This is known as an HIV discordant relationship.
Polygamy has long been customary in some cultures in Kenya and was legalised in 2014. Daniel and his wives live in Kakamega, in western Kenya, where the practice is common and accepted. With Dorothy’s support, Daniel decided to marry Electine and stand up to the stigma associated with HIV discordance.
Electine and Daniel were high school lovers but lost touch after school. When they met again, many years later, Daniel had already married Dorothy and Electine was recovering from the break-up of an abusive marriage. And she was HIV positive.
“The bold step I took when I rekindled my love with Electine was to especially challenge the stereotype in churches and communities about HIV discordance. It has since helped rebuild many marriages that would have been long broken,” says Daniel.
Daniel adds that he and his wives, who are both community health workers, use every available platform to educate people that HIV discordant relationships can be both loving and safe.
He says that he has been in the discordant and polygamous marriage for 13 years and he and his first wife have remained negative. “We embrace protected sex so that Electine can avoid opportunistic infections and Dorothy and I can remain free of HIV.”
Dorothy affirms that she has learnt a lot about HIV transmission, prevention and treatment over the years. “My co-wife is privileged to attend many HIV related conferences and workshops, so she shares the knowledge with us,” she says.
The trio takes advantage of social gatherings to speak about how to have a safe, successful discordant relationship. It was during such a meeting that Judith Munyaawa met Daniel and Electine.
Judith says: “The meeting with this couple was a real eye opener for me.” Judith and her boyfriend had been denied a church wedding because she is living with HIV while her partner is negative. When they heard Daniel’s story, they decided to get married immediately.
“Though we both are from a Christian background, we did a colourful customary law marriage and, three years down the line, he is still negative,” says Judith.
Violation of rights
Judith’s experience is not uncommon. Many churches in Kenya still demand a premarital HIV test, which human rights organisations say is a violation of people’s privacy. Sometimes they also interfere in discordant marriages.
A recent report by KELIN Kenya, a non-governmental organisation that promotes the human rights of people living with HIV, highlights such punitive practices.
Joe (not his real name), a beneficiary of legal services from KELIN Kenya, says that a local church encouraged his wife to abandon their matrimonial home of five years because Joe tested positive for HIV and his wife was negative. They were later reconciled. He strongly believes that HIV testing should be voluntary, consensual and confidential.
Treatment for prevention
According to World Health Organization guidelines for couples in discordant a relationship, the infected party should receive antiretroviral treatment even if their CD4 count is above 350 as a prevention measure. Normally, a person is only eligible for antiretrovirals if their CD4 count, which indicates their level of infection-fighting white blood cells, is below 350.
This has been backed up by research into treatment as prevention, which proved HIV transmission can be reduced up to 96 per cent when the infected partner is using antiretrovirals.
Daniel urges people living with HIV to disclose their status to their sexual partners, saying that this is one of the best HIV prevention measures. “Dorothy and I take good care of Electine because we know her status,” he notes.
Daniel advises men that HIV is no reason for any man to shun the love of his life. “Listen and adhere to the doctors’ instructions and you will live happily and safe from HIV infection,” he asserts.
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