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Let Us Learn to Have Difficult Conversations About Sex

A Contributor From Kenya Reflects on One Barrier to "Getting to Zero" in His Country

December 11, 2013

We have been focusing on the theme of "Getting to Zero" for World AIDS Day since 2011 (Zero HIV infections, zero stigma/discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths). Nations have been focusing on this theme which runs until 2015.

Concerted efforts by various stakeholders (government, nongovernmental organizations, faith-based organizations) have led to increased awareness on the life-threatening disease in developing countries and especially in Kenya. They deserve to be applauded for their efforts.

Despite a number of very positive strides that have been made in Kenya, one major drawback is in terms of the annual infections (ranging between 100,000 - 120,000). The prevalence level, according to the latest Kenya AIDS Indicator Survey, conducted in 2012, is at 5.6 percent (approximately 1.2 million Kenyans living with the HIV virus).

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Current research has shown that girls as young as 9 years are engaging in sexual activities. It has been found that there is a linkage between this early sexual debut and the high prevalence of HIV amongst the youths. Girls also fear getting pregnant rather than contract the dreaded HIV virus (this explains the high demand for the "morning-after pill" in the local pharmacies).

Previous anti-HIV campaigns started off in the '90s as simple ABCs -- (Abstaining, Being faithful to one partner and Condom use) in preventing HIV transmission. It was assumed that it would be as simple as getting people to abstain or be faithful. Condoms in the earlier days were viewed as a "ticket to promiscuity," and church leaders burned condoms and mobilized their flock to march through the streets. They alleged that their use would promote "immorality" and that condoms were "un-African Western concepts."

Recently there has been the "Wacha Mpango wa Kando" (Swahili for "stop relationships on the side") campaign, an advert focusing on infidelity in marriages/relationships and its linkage with HIV. As a society we are uncomfortable on our seats in our living rooms when the advert is being aired. We are furious with the participants in the short clip who seemed to advocate for infidelity. I find Kenya a society that "buries its head in the sand." Current statistics from the latest Kenya AIDS Indicator Survey show there is a high prevalence of infection especially between the ages of 40 to 55 years (persons in monogamous unions and steady relationships). Hence these data indicate increasing infidelity amongst married couples.

Let us face it: Faithfulness is not guaranteed in our relationships and marriage can offer a false sense of security.

The advert, which focuses on a casual conversation between two women, clearly highlights the notion that unfaithfulness is not entirely a male concept. The campaign acknowledges that many partners in steady relationships cheat. We know this. They know this. Everybody knows this. New cases of HIV infection are being reported in married couples as opposed to single couples. Let us as a society stimulate dialogue on this difficult topic.

As a society we are passive and stifle our feelings when it comes to difficult topics. Kenyans prefer to get ballistic, complaining about how wrong it is to air such issues around our kids, the state of moral decadence, anything to separate us from the reality.

As a society we are passive and stifle our feelings when it comes to difficult topics. Kenyans prefer to get ballistic, complaining about how wrong it is to air such issues around our kids, the state of moral decadence, anything to separate us from the reality.

No one is talking on the early sexual debut of teens engaging in sex as minors. We still want to believe that it is happening to someone else's daughter and as such we are not willing to discuss the issue in an open forum.

I think as much as we are focusing on what is being termed as "key populations" in HIV transmission (men having sex with men, injecting drug users, sex workers, etc.) in stemming the tide of new HIV infections, emphasis needs to be laid on persons who are "straight" (heterosexuals). We need to dispel the notion that it's only one's sexual orientation that can play a big factor in HIV transmission. The key message should revolve on the fact that "the risk of contracting HIV is not on who you are (sexual orientation) but the risk is on what you do (especially for persons who are complacent when engaging in sexual activities)."

Let us as a society have a "put-everything-on-the-table," candid talk on sexual issues if we are to achieve our goal of "Getting to zero."

Matong lives in Kiambu county, Kenya, with his wife and their four children. He works as an advocacy officer for a nongovernmental organization that reaches out to women infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. Read Matong's story of his HIV diagnosis.


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