Soldiers of Hope Speak of their Experience with HIV in Kenya
This year, the World AIDS Day celebrations in Mombasa, Kenya featured an often under-discussed cohort of persons living with HIV – uniformed officers --- as prominent guests and speakers.
The national celebrations featured speeches and skits performed by the Christened Soldiers of Hope: a group comprised of Administration Police, the Kenya Wildlife Service, the National Youth Service, and officers from the Kenya Police force who are living positively with HIV.
The officers, drawn from all the regions of Kenya, raised concerns of stigma and discrimination within the uniformed forces, and discussed how prejudice hampers the uptake of HIV care and treatment services.
One officer stood before a mammoth crowd and addressed his frustrations with the eternal battle against stigma.
“As a soldier, I have been fighting criminals with guns for the sake of the security of other people, but I’m not able to fight the enemy within, and that’s stigma and discrimination,” he said.
Recently, Kenya has heard many inspiring stories of HIV-positive officers who encourage others to receive HIV testing, and anti-retroviral therapy, despite suffering under constant prejudice. Throughout the celebrations, other HIV-positive uniformed officers addressed the audience, which included Kenya’s First Lady, Margaret Kenyatta, senior government officials, development partners, diplomats, and donors.
Uniformed service officers are believed to be at risk of HIV infection because they’re oftentimes young, away from home, and subject to high stress which leads to engagement in risky sexual behaviors.
In addition to stigma and discrimination, common challenges facing HIV-positive uniformed officers include interruptions in treatment schedule due to sudden location transfers, and improper care and treatment follow-up. These workplace challenges prevent proper uptake and adherence to anti-HIV treatment.
The Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation tackles these barriers to adherence by collaborating with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)-funded AIDS Response in Forces in Uniform (ARIFU) project to provide training and support HIV-positive soldiers.
The ARIFU program aims to increase access to TB and HIV prevention, care, treatment and support services among the uniformed personnel, their families and the surrounding communities.
Through the EGPAF/ARIFU collaboration, uniformed officers now have psychosocial support groups all over the country, helping them to deal with the challenges of HIV one day at a time.
Kenya’s uniformed officers are selflessly dedicated to the security and wellbeing of their citizens and we applaud their bravery. Their prominence in this year’s World AIDS Day activities advances the fight against stigma within the hierarchies in the uniformed forces and breaks the silence and stigma against persons living with HIV.