Adolescent Girls and Young Women Empowered Against HIV in western Kenya

Adolescent pregnancy rates are higher in sub-Saharan Africa than they are anywhere else in the world; and the rates continue to increase. Our studies have established that 2 in every 5 girls in western Kenya initiate childbearing before the age of 20, most of which is unplanned and unintended.

Even more unfortunate is that these rates are higher in resource-poor environments that also suffer relatively higher burden of HIV. More than half of all new HIV infections in Kenya occur among adolescents and young people, and young women are almost twice as likely to acquire HIV as their male counterparts. Inequality (expressed in terms of poverty, intimate partner violence, poor access to health services, etc) and social vulnerability are drivers of the epidemic in the region. This sub-group thus needs targeted interventions that do not only enhance prevention but also reduce and eventually eliminate their vulnerability.

Although there have been a number of awareness creation efforts on the epidemic in western Kenya, our surveys consistently indicate that a number of adolescent girls and young women do not effectively understand HIV, transmission risks, and care and treatment services. Additionally, there are a number of myths around the epidemic, including that contaminated sharp objects are safe as long as the contamination ‘dries up’, soft hands are an indication of infection, everyone has HIV, and only a few people ‘acquire AIDS’, ARVs fatten people and have harmful long-term effects, etc. For this, and a number of other reasons, the adolescent girls and young women in these environments are more concerned about pregnancy than they are of getting infected with HIV.

Unfortunately, there are limited interventions targeting this subgroup. PHIS and partners are implementing a comprehensive R&D program, ‘Empowered’, that aims to characterize proximal and distal drivers of the epidemic among this vulnerable group, while putting in place interventions, including training and economic empowerment, that remove their vulnerability to the epidemic in western Kenya.