Two Faces of Culture and Religion- Breaking the Barriers - PeaceNet Kenya's story

    Since November 2009, PeaceNet Kenya (PNK) through its North Eastern Regional Peace Network has been implementing the HIV/AIDs programme under the Global Fund 7 in Ijara and Garissa (recently subdivided into Fafi and Lagdera) Districts. PeaceNet membership has been seeking opportunities to support orphans of HIV/AIDs as well as addressing emerging social and economic issues such as the needs of persons living with HIV/AIDs particularly in the urban cosmopolitan areas of Garissa.

    Whereas the trend in the rest of the country is one of declining HIV infection rates, in North Eastern infection rates are rising slowly but steadily. Besides, whereas the rest of the country has moved into care and support for the infected and the affected, the northern region lags behind in both awareness and the basic infrastructure that would support existing and new initiatives. The region also acutely suffers inadequate culturally and religiously sensitive HIV and AIDS services. For instance, uptake of HIV/AIDS services such as Counseling and Testing is the lowest in the country. This problem is further compounded by misleading religious beliefs. 'Muslim leaders view medical personnel working for the HIV/AIDS programs in the province as conduits for spreading immorality'. Notwithstanding the fact that , even as Muslim leaders are increasingly doing a great job in sensitizing the Muslim faithful on HIV/AIDS, Islamic tenets view some of the practices associated with the fight against HIV spread as immoral and religiously unacceptable. For instance, they do not condone the use of condoms as a tool of people enjoying sex while protecting themselves against infections citing polygamy as the option for anyone in need of more sex. Condoms are viewed as tools for prostitution and perceived as encouraging to promiscuity and public demonstration of their use is considered a despicable abomination. Thus, distribution of condoms in the region is a challenge and when it is done, it focuses mainly on the non-Muslims population. This, therefore, means that using condoms is almost unheard of between spouses and women especially, would almost never ask for or use them. At least some men use them discreetly, despite their religious beliefs in the contrary. This scenario obviously points to a community that is almost totally ignorant of correct use of a condom and its importance.

    Needless to say that this state of affairs is denial; denial because no one can deny that sex is a basic human need that people will engage in - belief or no belief, religion or no religion. Sex work is another facet of sex only different in the sense that it is regarded as work which is often commercialized. It is fair that men and women who engage in it are informed of the dangers attendant to it in form potential for infection with STIs including HIV/AIDS. The need to protect themselves considering their occasional involvement with many clients cannot be gainsaid and should be recognized as basic individual right. People should be adequately informed and then left to make informed choices. Not even polygamy which religion views as the option is a panacea to human need for sex and more sex. Perfect relationships and absolute faithfulness may not exist in a fast changing world with today's transitory nature of life where people are always on the move. While anyone would want to cite culture or religion to justify demonization of condoms, this chilling message by Hablaha Tunta should ring warning bells.

    Hablaha tunta is Somali for, 'women who enjoy themselves'.

    This is a story of Commercial Sex Workers in Dadaab Refugee Camp in Garissa County, who are part of the Most at Risk Populations (MARPS) reached and sensitized by PEACENET through the Global Fund Round 7 Program in partnership with CARE Kenya. The women are opposed to being perceived as people involved commercial sex and view the idea of sex as a trade as alien thinking. They regard themselves as, 'pleasure givers' and 'people out to relieve men's pain of loneliness and boredom', especially those away from home or on transit like the long distance truckers. They particularly consider themselves as 'Hablaha tunta' - women out to enjoy themselves - and wonder, what is wrong with having fun! Now, some of these women are up in arms, against Programs such as the PEACENET sensitization initiative targeting youth. They feel that these projects preach 'bad news'. The bad news is that, people who have heard and heeded the message of ABC no longer show interest in them. When they abstain, become faithful or suggest using a condom, business suffers and it is not fun anymore!

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