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Kenya: Creating safe spaces for people with HIV

The Jesuit parish of St Joseph the Worker in Kangemi, on the outskirts of Nairobi, runs the Uzima program for people living with HIV. Uzima has 45 men and 67 women in support groups. They come together to share experiences and to encourage each other in support groups. After hearing about the findings of a survey on stigma in Kenya, shared during the recent national dialogue about HIV and AIDS, we asked Norah, a member of one of the support groups of Uzima, and Lucy, a counsellor with the program, for their views.

Norah (pictured above with four of her five children): “When I relocated to Kangemi, someone told me there was a support group at St Joseph’s. I went around looking for it and I was given appointments to visit the counsellor. I joined the support group and my life changed. When I came for meetings, I found so many other mothers around, and I no longer felt I was the only one; before this is what I thought. I had been seeing only death, not life. But at Uzima our counsellors encouraged us so much and, since joining, I see only hope. I have taken HIV to be a part of me, I have accepted what I have in me, no more blaming, no more not accepting. I am not ashamed to tell others my status because I am free. Stigma is gone, I no longer have it. I have been taking my ARVs well since that time and my CD4 count has been good. Through my support group, I go to visit and encourage others in Kangemi, who are living with HIV and who are suffering, so maybe we can help them. With Uzima I will live long!"

Lucy: “In my 10 years of experience as a counsellor, I would say that one of the most important issues related to stigma is disclosure: those who have shared about their HIV status with their relatives can more easily live without fear. Still this does not come easy and is one of the hardest things for people living with HIV to do. Some come to counselling to ask, what will happen when I disclose? How can I? We counsel clients to show them the importance of disclosure to those who are closest to them, so that they can get support when they need, and also for their own sense of freedom. When they are not ready to do this, we help. What I have seen is that when there is disclosure, families are more supportive.

Then it helps if people can earn their living. Those involved in income-generating activities don’t have much fear. At first, when we started making baskets, we were afraid to go selling them, but now we have come a long way, with a self-help group that has saved money. And this has given them self-esteem. One always says 'it is St Joseph that has made me who I am today'."