International Women's Day: Stories from Kenya

(Amanda Cary/PHR)
Woman and her daughter accessing integrated services in Kenya (Amanda Cary/PHR)

"Women have been split into parts – eyes, ears, heart, breasts – by the health system. We must see women holistically." (Margaret Gitau, Kenya's National AIDS/STD Control Programme).

This Sunday, March 8, PHR will join the global celebration of International Women’s Day—a day to honor the achievements of women around the world and to focus attention on the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in the fight for gender equality.

Last year on this important day, Health Action AIDS launched a new campaign initiative entitled, Health Rights=Health Women: A Commitment to Halt the Feminization of AIDS. We have received tremendous support of this initiative over the past year and indeed have seen improvements in US global AIDS policies.

But the work is not over.

This year, International Women's Day coincides with the start of PHR's Global AIDS Month of Action. Starting today for the month of March, we will offer a weekly blog series featuring stories and lessons learned from a recent PHR trip to Kenya—as well as a library of advocacy resources to further your understanding of how integrating family planning and HIV services can help halt the feminization of AIDS and advance the right to health.

Women are particularly vulnerable to the epidemic due in part to fragmented health services and episodic care. The integration of reproductive health services, including family planning, and HIV/AIDS services is a rights-based intervention that addresses underlying conditions that fuel the AIDS epidemic, including stigma, discrimination, gender inequalities, lack of sexual and reproductive rights, as well as physical and social barriers to health services.

In December 2008, I traveled to Kenya where I joined my fellow PHR staffer, Lissy DeSantis, to learn from providers, clients, local NGO staff, and government officials about their experiences with integrating family planning and HIV/AIDS voluntary counseling and testing (VCT) services.

When we asked what service integration means to providers and clients in Kenya, the idea of a “one-stop shop for health” was echoed throughout our conversations. Integration happens when people can come to one health facility and receive multiple services during the same visit. Family planning is a key entry point to the health system for women and therefore an important time to provide HIV prevention and educational services. Likewise, existing (VCT) centers are key places to provide family planning information and services that should be available for all sexually active women. Integrating these services provides multiple entry points to the health system, while expanding the reach and uptake of HIV services.

"I ask myself, if I’m genuine about HIV, the women coming for family planning are sexually active and if I don’t tell them about HIV then I’m denying them an opportunity to know their status." (Emma, a nurse who pioneered the integration of services for women in the Nairobi area.)

Now more than ever we must be vigilant with our advocacy to promote women’s rights in the fight against AIDS.

Despite the many improvements in the reauthorized PEPFAR last year, the new bill failed to give needed attention to the integration of family planning and HIV/AIDS services for women. That’s why every week this month, as the Health Action AIDS Campaign kicks off a nationwide Global AIDS Month of Action, we will bring you more information on how to push the agenda forward on the integration of family planning and HIV/AIDS services.

Sunday is International Women’s Day: don’t sit this one out. Join us in making the right to health a reality for all women!

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