Kenya: no glove, no love - young women take charge of condom use

1st March 2007

Kenyan women are taking control of their sex lives, with recent research showing that more than 70 percent of young women use condoms to prevent pregnancy, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections.

In a departure from the traditionally passive role of women in sexual matters, an increasing number of young women were now insisting on "no condom, no sex" to lower the risk of infection, according to a study conducted by research group Infotrak Research & Consulting, in conjunction with a local young women's magazine, 'Eve Girl'.

A total of 2,400 young women between the ages of 18 and 25 in Kenya's eight provinces were interviewed as part of the 'Sex Track' study, and the results showed that only 24 percent did not use condoms during intercourse, while 54 percent used them "persistently".

According to the government, the remarkable increase in the number of young women using condoms is no accident.

"The incorporation of HIV/AIDS in the primary and secondary school curricula since 2002 has had a positive impact," Alice Natecho, communications officer with the National AIDS Control Council, told PlusNews. "It has helped to break the silence over the pandemic, resulting in a dramatic rise in condom use among young women."

The ministry of health has made condoms easily accessible in its condom distribution programme, Decentralised AIDS and Research Health (DARE), sponsored by the World Bank, which has dramatically increased the number of condoms in circulation and contributed to their becoming more acceptable.

"Distribution figures showed a strong gain in the number of condoms being demanded: 50 million in 2002, 80 million in 2003 and 110 [million] in 2004," the ministry said in a December 2005 report.

"If trends continue, the next three-year procurement plan [2005-2007] should be for at least 500 million condoms. This figure does not include the 150 million condoms sold per year."

Allan Abong'o, one of the study's authors, said the high cost and side-effects of alternative contraceptives, such as pills and injections, coupled with the fact that they do not protect one from sexually transmitted infections, made the condom more appealing to young women.

Catherine Wanjiku, 22, a waitress at a popular restaurant in the capital, Nairobi, attributed the jump in the number of young women who insisted on condoms to vigorous AIDS campaigns featuring popular young musicians and television stars who encourage people always to carry condoms.

"You can't ignore the disease when the painting is on the wall. The information is all over about risky sexual behaviour: radio, TV, newspapers, billboards, posters and peers remind you of the imminent danger," Wanjiku said.

The cultural barriers that once prevented young women from taking control of their sex lives were falling before the onslaught of HIV/AIDS. "When you are out on a hot date, handbags store many secrets, among them condoms," she commented. "Aware of the temptation to engage in risky sex, young women would rather carry condoms when they are going to meet their boyfriends."

Livingstone Ruhuni, a young man in the Kenyan capital, agreed: "It is difficult to date a woman if you are not prepared to wear a condom."

Hold the applause.

Despite these positive trends, the Infotrack survey also revealed some less-than-rosy statistics: most of the sample population said they had lost their virginity before the age of 16 and, despite high condom use during initial sexual encounters, young women tended to lose their guard subsequently, resulting in sexually transmitted infections or pregnancy, a trend that highlighted the need for more education.

More disturbingly, just 33 percent of the women interviewed admitted ever going for an HIV test. The low numbers could be attributed to the scarcity of voluntary counselling and testing centres in several parts of the country: only nine percent of respondents in the poor, semi-arid Eastern Province had taken an HIV test, compared with the better resourced Nairobi and Rift Valley provinces, where the figure rose to 25 percent.

Many also feared the stigma and discrimination they would face if they were HIV-positive, and just 31 percent discussed sexual matters with members of their families, a sign that the cultural barriers preventing women from discussing sex openly were still in place.

"The high percentage of women who fear HIV tests calls for mobilisation of the uninfected younger generation to determine their sero-status to protect them against risky sexual behaviour," said Infotrack's Abong'o.

NACC's Natecho said logistical issues, such as transport and inadequate storage, and conflicts among leading donors on strategies to fight the pandemic had also delayed the distribution of condoms across the country.

Kenya has a national HIV prevalence of 5.9 percent, but the infection level in young women is 7.7 percent, and they are almost twice as likely to be infected with the virus than their male counterparts.

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March 1 2007, PlusNews

Categories: Kenya