On the International Day of the Girl, we sat down with Lucy Wanjiku, HIV activist and mother, to hear about her experience as a young woman living with HIV in Kenya. She shared her hopes, dreams and fears for the future of girls in sub-Saharan Africa.
What challenges did you face as a teenage girl in Kenya? What are you doing to address these challenges for other girls?
I grew up in Dandora, an informal settlement in Nairobi. I work here trying to alleviate the situation for other girls and young women. We still have girls dropping out of school because of lack of sanitary towels in 2019, getting into risky relationships with power imbalances and cross-generational relationships becoming a norm. Correct and consistent information on sexual reproductive health and rights are still a challenge and new infections of HIV and teenage pregnancies are still on the rise.
It is very sad because 10 years ago I was the teen mom in relative poverty, in a relationship where I had no voice, forced by circumstance to enter a marriage I was not ready for and got infected with HIV. Girls are still going through this as they try growing up in a not-so-kind world.
As the founder and team leader of Positive Young Women Voices, a community-based organization in Dandora, we focus on empowering adolescent girls and young women to live to their full potential. We offer mentorship to girls in school as well as sanitary towels to keep them in school. We keep pushing them to see the world differently and to treat success as their birth right in ways it resonates with them. We also offer skills building for young women who are out of school for their economic empowerment and growth.
What inspired you to become an activist and advocate? How did you find your voice?
After the shock of losing my first son and testing HIV positive, I wanted to find purpose. It occurred to me that I had gone through it all to make it easier for girls like me. I did not have a big sister, a mentor to hold me, but I could be that for someone.
I was selected to speak to our president at the launch of the initiative ALL IN to End Adolescent AIDS in Nairobi. With this new opportunity, Sauti Skika was born — the first network of adolescents living with HIV in Kenya and I was its founding coordinator. With the knowledge from my engagement in these spaces, I grew into newer roles locally, regionally and now globally. I now sit on the UNAIDS Programme Coordinating Board.
It has been one great ride that I never imagined. Just because I spoke, just because I believed my voice mattered. As do the voices of all the girls and women I work with. My life is better because theirs is too.
As a mother and activist, what are some of your hopes and dreams for your daughter?
I am the mother of a lovely three-year-old girl. She is such a beautiful child – respectful and loving, who loves school, cuddling and being pampered. She is a gift. As every mother hopes for nothing but the best for their child, I do too. I would love to give her greater opportunities to be the best she can be, ensure she can access the best education to the highest level and quality health care when and if she needs it.
What is your biggest fear as a young woman, a mother and HIV advocate? How can these fears be addressed?
Not being able to access quality health care scares me. As women living with HIV we had to fight for access to DTG (ARV) when it was abruptly restricted for women of reproductive age. When we pushed, health care providers recommended getting our “tubes tied” or paying for the pills. It is scary to realize women still do not have autonomy over their bodies and their choices never considered, in the name of public health.
I fear my daughter could be stigmatized. Stigma is still largely the contributing factor to new infections and I fear for mothers who sometimes lack prophylaxis for their children because of shortages.
My fears can be countered by making universal health coverage a reality – not on paper, not in fairy language, not on shelves but as a real, breathing everyday reality with access to quality, accessible, affordable, non-discriminative healthcare.
Giving people consistent, correct information such as “Undetectable = Untransmittable” (U=U) would make a big difference to treatment. When a person living with HIV is on treatment and gets to undetectable levels of viral load, then this person cannot transmit HIV to their sexual partner.
What does your family think of your activism?
I have a very supportive partner who makes it all so much easier. I started travelling very early on when our daughter was barely a year old and he took care of everything like a great sport. We make a good team and it helps with everything – school, parenting, work, advocacy and keeping sane.
My daughter, as she grows older, misses me. and somehow seems to get that mammy has to do this so she can too. As we look forward to the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and getting a new declaration, I hope it makes her life and of all those girls her age easier than mine and my generation who were three years old 25 years ago when the current ICPD was developed. I hope my contribution to gender equity and equality will make her smile one day and she will be proud her mother did something about it.
What is your advice for other girls who want to stand up for what they believe in?
Do it and do it now! You do not have to have it all figured out. As long as your work changes a life for the better, things fall in place in their own time and you live a fulfilled life knowing you did not just stand back while injustice happened. You fight, and you will win. For though you stand as one, you come as ten thousand. All those before you are rooting for you and so am I.
In 2018, an estimated 520 adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19 years were newly infected with HIV every day. Two out of three of these infections are happening among girls due to a multitude of vulnerabilities including access to education, the prevalence of gender-based violence and basic physiology.
Lucy Wanjiku first worked with UNICEF on a global level at the launch of ALL IN to End Adolescent AIDS in 2015. She is currently representing the NGO delegation at the UNAIDS Programme Coordinating Board. She is an outspoken voice for the rights of young women living with HIV in Kenya and well beyond.