Let's protect our girls from negative influences now

Microsoft Africa Development Centre Managing Director Catherine Muraga (right) in a conversation a group of tech students during the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. [Jenipher Wachie, Standard]

Like other women leaders, our attention was drawn to recent Western women leadership forum in Kakamega County.  While many may frown upon holding such regional forums with a hint of tribal undertones, the intersectional identities have potential to contribute to rich diversity of Kenyan women, and hopefully aid them to exploit their full potential.

The stories and experiences of women in leadership are as diverse as are their languages and cultures. This can be a key driver of social and economic outcomes and their voices will ensure no woman is “left behind”.

But what stood out was Prime Cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi’s speech sounding alarm on the prospect of our young population being plunged into an HIV crisis.

He expressed apprehension about the epidemic’s effect on teenagers. Because adolescents potentially are more at risk for HIV infection compared to other age groups.

Over time, adolescents and young people have represented a growing share of people living with HIV worldwide but this generation in particular is a ticking time point.

In 2021 alone, 410,000 (confidence bounds: 196,000–650,000] young people between the ages of 10 to 24 were newly infected with HIV, of whom 160,000 [46,000–300,000] were adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19.

What are we doing to combat this? As an association that champions the welfare of girls, it is the knowledge gaps on essential information that can enable the teenager make informed decisions that pique our interest. The youth know how AIDS is transmitted but do not know how to practise prevention. Mass media has been the major purveyor of AIDS information, but are suspected of capitalising on the situation to sell their products. Health clinics are reliable information sources, but have not been providing the desired AIDS information regularly.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, students were required to participate in online learning, and for the many able to access online content, the proliferation of other media opened up access to other harmful content (read pornography).

Our schools are equally lacking information on sexuality behaviours. For this reason, a wide range of prevention activities need to be implemented to minimise risk of HIV transmission among youth. I agree with ICT Cabinet Secretary Eliud Owalo’s suggestion that the government should start monitoring social media algorithms and ensure only tech motivated and social upright content gets most viewed by this generation. However, for the most part, education about AIDS is currently the most important preventative measure. Knowledge will help modify behaviour only if people believe everyone, including themselves, are at risk of infection.

Unfortunately, adolescents tend to believe in their own invincibility so they continue to be at risk. Somehow they must be reached. Recommendations include: Providing clear, frank information about AIDS in Kenya; educational programmes for adolescents; education for parents about AIDS; counselling for college students; and an increase in AIDS survey research.

The writer is Chief Executive Officer at Kenya Women Teachers Association