University of Nairobi philosophy professor Oriare Nyarwath believes nonsexual inheritance could bring "a dignified death to the practice, without making people feel culturally destitute." But, he notes, even symbolic guardianship implies that women are subservient to and dependent upon men. "The culture is patrilineal and patriarchal," he says. "The woman goes to live in the man's home, the woman fits within the man's culture. So necessarily she's not on the same footing as the man."

The most pernicious inequality is poverty, by no means a uniquely African phenomenon. Of the world's 1.3 billion living in abject poverty, 70 percent are women—and most of them face the same basic problems as African women. "In pre-industrial societies women are trapped in their reproductive roles," says Geeta Rao Gupta, president of the International Center for Research on Women. In ICRW's numerous studies on HIV, women from Latin America, Asia, and Africa report that they dare not insist on safer sex—or object to painful sex—for fear of being abandoned by their men and spiraling down into destitution. No wonder that in a 19-country study, ICRW found that the lower women's status, the higher HIV.

There are few places where poverty is worse than in Nairobi's slums, vast warrens of tin shanties, open sewers, and garbage-strewn dirt roads. In Korogocho, one of the poorest and meanest sections, a maze of narrow passageways leads into a one-room shack where the aroma of vegetable stew simmering on an open fire competes with the stench of raw sewage wafting in from outside. This is the home of Mary, who asked that her last name not be used. Two babies—Mary's seventh child and her first grandchild—lie on the bed.

Anna Adhiambo (left) and her mother-in-law Consolata Atieno: Anna was kicked out of her home when she left her husband’s cousin, who had "inherited" her.
photo: Mark Schoofs
Anna Adhiambo (left) and her mother-in-law Consolata Atieno: Anna was kicked out of her home when she left her husband’s cousin, who had "inherited" her.

Just a week ago, one of Mary's johns—who pay as little as 75 cents for sex—slapped her in the face when she asked him to use a condom. "I can't eat a sweet in its wrapper," he said. Flashing back eight years to the man who beat her so viciously that she couldn't work for two days, she let her latest violent customer go ahead. He may pay for his pleasure with AIDS, because Mary is HIV-positive.

Mary wasn't born in the slums, but in a rural area 100 kilometers outside of Nairobi. There, rich red earth nourishes broad green leaves of the plantain tree, the billowing shrubbery of coffee plants, and the yellow-tufted stalks of maize. Mary's mother Beth sits in a hut, the door propped open with a machete, and explains why her daughter left. Her account corresponds exactly to the one given independently by her daughter. The tale they tell is an allegory of how women's powerlessness fuels the AIDS epidemic.

Mary's husband "was a drunkard," Beth says. He beat Mary virtually every week, burned her clothes, and denied her food. Once, when he was drubbing Mary, one of their children got in the way. The husband literally threw the seven-year-old girl aside. She landed on a rock, injured her lung, and was hospitalized for two weeks. Mary fled to her parents.

At first Mary's father, who died just this year, welcomed her home. But after a few days he realized that Mary and her children were extra mouths to feed. Mary recalls, "My father told me 'I have my own kids, so you're a burden to me. Pack up and go.' "

There are thousands of women like Mary in Nairobi, not to mention all of Africa, and to help curb the spread of HIV they need much more than AIDS awareness. "The women I work with say they'd rather die of AIDS tomorrow than die of hunger today," says Ann Waweru, director of the Voluntary Women's Rehabilitation Centre, an organization that helps sex workers, including Mary, find alternative work. It's not easy. "Most have no skills and no place to get a loan to start a business. A man is almost never burdened with children, so he can do casual work, earn 20 shillings, and survive on that. But most of the women we work with have children. They are driven to commercial sex by poverty."

According to the custom of the Kikuyu people, Mary's brothers were each given a plot of land to farm. But as a female child Mary was given nothing. At first, she tried to stay in the village, supporting herself and her children by doing odd jobs such as drawing water from the well and helping people till their fields. But her father wasn't satisfied and he would beat Mary and her mother. After six months Mary fled for Nairobi with her children and virtually nothing else.

In the city, she spent her first night at the home of a friend, who told her, "I'm going to show you how to get money." Mary turned her first john that night, and, she recalls, "I was happy because I got money to feed my children."

Research intern: Christine Brownlee

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