“The Stories Behind the Statistics” is a series we developed for the Gates Foundation blog, “Impatient Optimists.” The following post is the second in our on young people and HIV. The original post, located on “Impatient Optimists,” is available here. John Mwikwabe is a peer educator with the Kenya Red Cross Naivasha Sub Branch.
In a country where half of its population lives below the poverty line and many people make less than a dollar per day, life can be challenging. Many families struggle just to put food on the table. The responsibility to be the breadwinner, traditionally borne by parents, is extended to all family members. Children are forced to contribute to running the households, often before completing their primary level studies. Many young people find it difficult to get well-paying jobs, and often end up opening up “vibandas” (small vendors shop) to sell vegetables and groceries. In Naivasha, where I live, I see more and more young girls entering into sex work. As a peer educator, I have worked with some of the girls, their classmates and their neighbors and from them have learned staggering information.
“At first I just wanted to help at home, earn some money and save enough to help my mum. But later I realized I could buy whatever I wanted and that felt good for a change.” – 13-year-old female who is involved in sex work
The young woman quoted above is a standard 8 pupil at a nearby primary school. Her mother is fully aware of her daughter’s night shift duties but feels there is little she can do. Often, her daughter can bring home Kshs. 1,500 to Kshs. 2,500 (about $16-27 USD) in one night. The mother had to divorce her husband because of his heavy drinking and sees her daughter’s work as their family’s life-line despite the risks her daughter is exposed to.
I have seen other young women become involved with older men to supplement their family’s incomes; these types of relationships also increase young women’s vulnerability to STIs and HIV. There is a huge gap in providing these young girls who are in school, especially in primary school, with relevant information on prevention messages. There have been programs, but they often occur on the weekends when many adolescent girls go to visit their “clandes” (men who have money and are married).
As a peer educator, I mostly work with out-of-school youth—however even for those in school, comprehensive sexuality education is not available. The gap in available information about HIV risk impedes the war against HIV and AIDS and the promise of a brighter future for adolescent girls. Young people, and especially adolescent females, need information about reproductive health services and HIV prevention so that they are empowered to make informed decisions concerning their lives.