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Kenya, 2 March 2015: HIV does not define who I am

© UNICEF Kenya/2014/Wambugu
*Valentine shares her experience with HIV

 
NAIROBI, Kenya, 2 March 2015: For many adolescents living with HIV fitting in is never easy. Many face stigma from their peers and a society that constantly discriminates against them. But even worse, when young people living with HIV stigmatize themselves to the detriment of their own health.

17 year old Valentine* found out about her status in 2005, when she was eight years old. Her mother had kept it a safely-guarded secret for many years. One of her aunt’s intervened and took her for a check-up at the hospital where she was tested for HIV. Even after her status was revealed Valentine still had scanty information about HIV.

“I was tested for HIV and was found to be positive,” she recalls. “They then gave me some medication but I did not know what it was for.”

Eventually Valentine slowly began to understand her status and how she could take care of her health. It was during this time that she joined a high school in Central Kenya. Being in a boarding school made it difficult to keep her status to herself as other students became increasingly curious about her antiretroviral treatment regimen. They soon discovered her secret.

“Almost all the students knew about my status. There was a lot of discrimination in school,” she says. “I was isolated. Friends would talk and laugh behind my back.”

In a bid to fit in Valentine decided to stop taking her medication. She visited the clinic regularly but once given her ARVs she would throw them over the school fence. As a result, her immune system was compromised and her CD4 count dropped, while her viral load was very high.

I Choose to Live

Eventually Valentine resolved to take back her life and resume her treatment. The principal’s wife at her school was kind enough to keep her medication in her office and ensured other students would not intrude in her privacy.

“I decided to accept my status because it was my life and I had to take care of myself,” she says. “They would keep talking but I would take my medication.”

According to the 2014 National HIV and AIDS Estimates, 9 per cent of all people living with HIV are between the ages of 10-19. Comprehensive knowledge about HIV and AIDS is lower among the youngest and oldest age groups, 15-19 and 40-49, leading to misconceptions and stigmatization.

UNICEF Kenya works that the many barriers adolescents face to accessing health and support services are reduced, and that adolescents are recognized in national AIDS strategies and plans. Without increased attention to the needs of adolescents, an AIDS-free generation cannot be achieved in Kenya.

© UNICEF Kenya/2014/Wambugu
Grace Muthoni speaks to members of the Max Facta Support Group in Nairobi, Kenya.

Peer Support and Education

Valentine has just joined a support group where she can interact with her peers who are facing a similar situation. The Max Facta Support Group is based in Kayole, an informal settlement in Nairobi. The group brings together young people living with HIV in an open and supportive environment. Here they are free to talk about their status and how to live positively.

Grace Muthoni, team leader of the Max Facta Support Group, guides the discussions. She covers everything that a young person needs to know. From safe sex to disclosure, even encouraging the youth to engage in income-generating activities.

Grace founded the group in 2002 with other HIV-positive youth who needed a place to be themselves without fear of stigmatization.

“Most young people who have not disclosed their status do not adhere to their medicine because they don’t want their peers to see them,” Grace reveals. “We encourage and advise them on disclosure, to get support and take their treatment.”

“Parents also do not want people to know that their children are living with HIV; it is like an enclosed circle,” she adds. “These adolescents should know that HIV does not define who they are.”

At the support group Valentine opens up and is visibly at ease. She has made new friends who encourage and guide her on their journey with HIV. Like 24 year old Prudence*, a mother of four children who is like a bigger sister to Valentine.

“We young people need support, love and care,” says Valentine. “We should not be discriminated. Otherwise we would be lost with no focus.”

For any young person, HIV positive or not, acceptance and friendship makes the world a better place. A stigma-free and supportive environment enables adolescents and young people like Valentine to thrive regardless of their circumstances.
 

* Names have been changed to protect the identity of the young people living with HIV.

 

 
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