Poverty, Prostitution, Tradition Fuel AIDS on Lake Victoria Shores

Poverty, sex work and the tribal practice of widow inheritance are stoking a new rise in HIV cases among Kenyan communities along the banks of Lake Victoria.

Though intense public health campaigns target the 500-person beach village of Asat, it has one of Kenya's highest HIV/AIDS rates. "HIV/AIDS is rampant," said Pitanis Ogira Ochola, Asat's chief. "We buried four people today."

"AIDS is increasing," said Amos Were Ojuka, chief of the nearby 200-person Bao village. "We have five deaths a month, many orphans and 50 widows because of HIV."

In some lakeside villages, the HIV rate is 30-40 percent, said Betty Okero, who coordinates aid agency work from Kenya's third-largest western city, Kisumu. That compares to Kenya's overall 7 percent prevalence rate. "Sixty percent of the beds in hospitals in the Kisumu region are occupied by HIV patients," Okero said.

One in three adults in the Kisumu region is unemployed, said Okero, while the UN estimates that 48 percent of its people live in absolute poverty. Many women are forced to trade sex for fish to feed their families. In addition, the Luo tribe's tradition of widow inheritance has had profound health implications given that many of the husbands died of AIDS.

Joyce Oruko, a community leader in Denga village, has organized a fund to keep women from engaging in survival sex. "It used to happen on our beach and if I hear it is happening again, I will beat the man and the woman," she said.

"Before it was OK, because you could only get a treatable STD and you could hide it," said Denga resident Damaris Agola. "Now, with HIV, you can't hide it and you're bound to die."