NAIROBI, Kenya (WOMENSENEWS)--A month before she learned she had HIV, Sophia said she knew something was wrong. She started suffering from a constant fever and achy muscles.
She thought it was malaria and saw a doctor at the Nairobi Women's Hospital who said she was infected with HIV. Due to her weak immune system, she said she now has AIDS.
When Sophia confronted her boyfriend about her diagnosis he confessed that he tested positive three months before they became sexually involved.
"I cannot tell anyone about it, not even the closest of my friends," Sophia said, since she is not married and premarital sex goes against her Muslim culture. "My mother would have a heart attack if she knew I was positive."
Sophia (not her real name) is a 20-year-old Somali woman who, though recently having a boyfriend, has been betrothed for most of her life to a Muslim man from another country whom she has never met. The wedding, she thinks, will be in September.
She contracted HIV-AIDS by engaging in anal sex. Like many of her friends, she thought having that type of sex would preserve her virginity for her husband.
Nicholas Muraguri, director of the National AIDS and STD Control Programme in Kenya, said anal sex is four times riskier than any other type of sex because the inner lining of the anus is delicate and tears easily when roughly penetrated.
He said the practice of unprotected anal sex is common in some communities where virginity before marriage is valued and also among young people because they believe it is safer than other types of sex.
"The problem is most of the young people prefer this method as compared to vaginal sex," Muraguri said, adding that his program will soon be releasing a study on this problem.
Despite her diagnosis, Sophia seemed to think anal intercourse had been a good option. "I can live a normal lifestyle as any other girl and not worry," she said.
The big thing on her mind right now is that she does not have to worry about embarrassing her family on her wedding night.
A typical Somali wedding celebration ends with the newlyweds in a bedroom and the groom's family waiting outside for a bloody sheet to prove the bride's virginity. If she fails this test, the man's family has the right to demand repayment of the dowry paid to the bride's family.
A bride here in Kenya might not face the 100 lashings that is meted out in other Islamic countries, but she can often be shunned and considered dead by the family for not being a virgin.
Women's eNews met Sophia through an HIV-AIDS awareness workshop in Nairobi and interviewed her at her mother's empty clothing shop in Nairobi's Eastleigh, a neighborhood with many Somali immigrants.
An official at the National AIDS Control Council in Nairobi said that Sophia has some places to turn if she decides to tell her parents and they expel her.
The council and groups such as the Kenya Network of Women with Aids provide housing to many women suffering from HIV. Representatives of both groups said they could also provide her with tailoring work to make a living.
Sophia is reluctant though, saying that all this is about her family and the community.
Fear of Being Shunned
She doesn't disclose her status to anyone for the fear of being shunned by her family and even the community at large.
For the time being, her boyfriend pays for her medication. Sometimes the hospital dispenses antiretroviral medication free of charge.
Sophia worries about infecting her husband, but for now he remains something of an abstraction.
"I don't know much about him but my father says that he is coming in August. This will be our first meeting," she said.
Dr. Nduku Kilonzo, director for Liverpool Voluntary Testing Center, a care and treatment center for people infected with HIV-AIDS in Nairobi, said HIV-AIDS messages should be clearer about the dangers that poorly educated young women such as Sophia face when they adopt anal intercourse as a means of preserving virginity.
Aisha Hajji, a sociologist at the University of Nairobi, agrees. She said the use of anal sex to preserve notions of virginity goes far beyond the Somali community and that too few young people understand the dangers.
Sophia quit school at 11 to help her mother in the shop. "If my parents had taken me to school, I could have learned the risks of anal sex," she said in Swahili.
She said her boyfriend was the one to suggest anal sex as a way to safeguard her virginity, but it's also something she learned from friends.
"It's a common practice," she said. "Many of my friends have anal sex. We live in a secular country. They not only do it with their Christian boyfriends but the Somali and Muslims boyfriends who should know better."
Fatuma Noor is an award-winning Kenyan journalist who works for The Star Newspaper in Nairobi. She covers refugee and women issues.
For more information:
National AIDS Control Council in Kenya: