Kenyan AIDS worker proves 'life doesn't stop' because of HIV
By Tia Goldenberg Mar 7, 2007, 17:51 GMT
Nairobi - After Asunta Wagura was diagnosed with HIV in 1989, her community pastor told her she deserved it.
Let her serve as a lesson, he said summarily, for all sinners. And as a sinner who had premarital sex, the punishment was death.
This was common talk in Kenya those many years ago, but Wagura proved him and most of her family wrong. Despite being told she had six months left, she decided to live and live fully.
The full-figured, bright-eyed woman serves as an example in this impoverished, AIDS-ridden country with a prevalence rate of six per cent, of someone who overcame the odds and defied the stereotypes of people living with HIV or AIDS.
'After that day, I knew my life was not going to be like everyone else's. I wouldn't be following the norms,' she said.
Wagura heads KENWA, the Kenya Network of Women with AIDS, one of the few women-only advocacy and support groups in the East African nation.
She created KENWA in 1993 as a resource 'for women by women.' She wanted the group to provide support and guidance to women who were infected in the days when the Kenyan government refused to acknowledge the epidemic, which saw some 39.5 million people living with HIV worldwide in 2006, two-thirds of that number in sub-Saharan Africa.
After all, when Wagura's pastor told her she deserved to die, she said she could have benefited from a group like KENWA.
The six months after her diagnosis were hell. She attempted suicide several times and prepared for a death she saw as inevitable.
'I didn't want to wait out the six months. I was ready to die, especially if I couldn't have a life with children or a family,' Wagura said in her KENWA office, with a 'woman of the year award' from a local woman's magazine sitting on the desk below her.
Once she passed the six-month mark, despite her ongoing devastation, Wagura pulled herself away from suicidal sentiments. She and her boyfriend at the time decided to have a child.
'My boyfriend convinced me that the doctors had erred and that we should have a child. I did it to deny to myself my positive status.'
In 1990, Peter was born, but Wagura didn't muster up the courage to test his status for 14 years. He tested HIV negative.
After Peter, opting not to risk the chance of transmitting HIV on to any other offspring, Wagura decided to adopt two children.
But then, last year, after gaining knowledge of how to prevent transmission to a child, Wagura tried again and in December gave birth to Joshua. After just six weeks, Wagura took him to a clinic and he too tested negative.
'The perception with HIV is that life stops. Everything around you stops: your need for love, your need for family,' she said. 'Stigmas associated with HIV have taken away our ability to have children. That's what we want to get back.'
KENWA provides support to some 125 HIV-positive women with children, by supplying them with formula to prevent the risk of transmission through breastfeeding and promoting safe practices.
While much has changed since 1989 - the Kenyan government declared HIV/AIDS a national disaster in 2000 and hundreds of AIDS-focused non-governmental organizations (NGO) have sprouted - Wagura says stigma and discrimination, especially against women, are still evident.
According to Wagura, Women are blamed for the spread of HIV and women who are infected with HIV are still considered prostitutes. The usual perception is that unfaithful men who become infected have a wife who does not fulfill him sexually.
The burden for women with HIV goes further. Traditionally and still in rural areas, women are the home makers who gather firewood and tend to the children and gather food. They are unlikely to have time to seek treatment for HIV.
Much of AIDS policy is created by men and most NGOs are run by men, often leaving out the specific needs of infected women, according to Wagura.
KENWA tries to bridge that gap.
'I would like to see women make their own decisions. In Kenya, the woman serves the tables while the men sit there to make decisions,' Wagura said, sitting below a photo of herself shaking hands with former Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi, the leader who in his last years in office began to talk about AIDS publicly.
'This will be my next focus - once I'm through raising Joshua.'© 2007 dpa - Deutsche Presse-Agentur