By Dr. Ruth Laibon – Masha, Chief Executive Officer, National Aids Control Council.

Gender biases across the political, economic and social spheres of life suppresses the knowledge, skills and competencies of more than 50% of our population

On 8th March 2022, the world celebrates International Women’s Day under the theme: ‘Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow’. The theme captures the sustained desire to secure gender parity in all spheres of life.

HIV is one of the conditions that thrives along gender inequalities as both a cause and consequence. Whereas progress has been made in various spheres, across the world, women continue to bear a disproportionate burden of HIV and gender based violence.

Despite the artificially erected barriers and biases over the years, a number of bold women living with HIV in Kenya refused to resign to fate. They refused to have their lives defined by the virus and rose up to be a beacon of hope to many other women.

For instance, as early as 1994, a group of women, majority of whom were HIV positive, led by Dorothy Onyango came together and established an organization called Women Fighting AIDS in Kenya (WOFAK). Its founding vision was and remains offering mutual support and empowerment to affected women in the face of societal stigma and discrimination. Currently, the organization operates in eight counties across the country. WOFAK is not an isolated case, but one among many that seek to ensure that women living with HIV are not denied an opportunity to apply their knowledge, skills and competencies in pursuit of political, economic and social advancements. They have been at the forefront in breaking barriers.

Painful and unthinkable

On the 7th of March 2022 as women prepared to usher in the International Women’s day, the painful unthinkable incident of a female motorist being sexually harassed along Forest Road in Nairobi, only served as a stark reminder that women and girls can’t and shouldn’t wait for an end to violence against women.

We must all rise up. Just like the small group of women that rose up against a disease – united through intolerable stigma and discrimination – to establish a long lasting movement that has shaped the first design of human rights based response to an epidemic.

We must not sit on the fence to only highlight gaps, but amply and unify our voices to call out for an end to sexual violence.  Yes, it is time to ‘Break the Bias’. Women and girls deserve safe spaces at school, places of worship, work and home. Yes, even women in the best homes where violence occur too must be supported to denounce this menace.

Include women in leadership

As Kenya draws towards a general election, calls for inclusion of women in leadership serve as an entry to start breaking the gender bias. But violence against women will not be eliminated with this step only. Women in all spaces must be united as one voice to use the platforms to break the silence. Men too are reminded that they are fathers, brothers, uncles, husbands and partners. Complacent approaches and resignation to fate on violence against women is a threat to all development agendas of any nation.

For adolescents and young women in Kenya, there is the triple threat of HIV, teenage pregnancy and gender-based violence. These girls and young women are robbed off the possibilities to pursue decent livelihood, for instance through aborted education, which holds the promise of opportunities. In his speech commemorating the 2021 World AIDS Day, H.E. President Uhuru Kenyatta captured the severity of the problem. He noted that high cases of teenage pregnancies work to undermine the country’s ‘socio-economic growth and negates progress made to end HIV as a public health threat.

Can’t and shouldn’t wait

Beyond teenage pregnancies and HIV, the alarming rise in gender-based violence cases pose an existential threat to the gains, hitherto made toward gender parity in the country, and indeed across the world. This is why a united movement of women and men is needed now more than ever. As we celebrate this year’s International Women’s Day, we strongly must condemn all forms of violence against women and girls. Women and girls can’t and shouldn’t wait any longer!