Women account for more than half of the number people living with HIV globally. Further, they have borne the brunt of the disease in a context of gender inequality, violence and often not being prioritized in national responses except during pregnancy to prevent transmission.
The disproportionate rates of infections amongst women point out to vulnerabilities created by unequal cultural, social and economic status where sadly the female gender is largely seen as ‘weak’. Simply put, tackling gender inequality is emerging as a necessary approach in advancing health and progress in tackling the spread of HIV.
The youth in Kenya also fit in this equation, having come from cultures where issues of sexuality are largely considered taboo.
For Ruth Kimani, the solution to reducing HIV infection rates among vulnerable groups such as women and the youth can only be successful if addressed from a human rights perspective. ‘’I live in society where HIV is still seen a public health concern. Everyone is operating in a silo and doesn’t see the need to open up conversations around sexual rights and diversity,’’ she says.
Ruth developed a passion for working with young people at a prime juncture of her career. She indicates that the statistics of young girls dropping out of school due to pregnancy and HIV infections quickened her determination to make a difference.’’ It was not an easy journey. I took it upon myself to disrupt our way of thinking which was met by opposition from societal actors such as parents and school institutions,’’ she adds.
She pushed for design messages around behavior change communication to influence attitudes and beliefs towards HIV. Her career journey would further be shaped upon joining Hivos. ‘’Hivos’ values in using a human rights approach to end HIV/AIDS as a global epidemic fit perfectly with my personal ethos in responding to severe inequalities women and youth living with HIV have to cope with every day,’’ she says.
Ruth has equally been vocal about advocating for comprehensive sexuality education in Kenya’s current education curriculum review as a mechanism of reducing HIV infections amongst the youth. She hopes this will go a long way in equipping young people with knowledge and choices around sex. ‘’We need to start having conversations about sex and sexuality with adolescents and teenagers at an early age,’’ she notes.
Her perfect world as she reflects on this year’s theme: #BalanceforBetter is that where women living with HIV can engage equally in society without societal and self-stigma. ‘’My urge to all women is that we need to find our voice to overcome the barriers that suppress us’’ she ends.