Kenya: The Women of Orongo (April 2007)

"Had I not joined the Orongo Widows and Orphans Group, I would be dead by now," says Betty Atieno, a 28 year-old mother of three.

Shortly after her husband died, Betty's parents-in-law said she would be inherited by their other son. She refused, but her brother-in-law often came home drunk and abused her. Each time, Betty would run away to friends. He gave Betty an ultimatum: become his wife or be thrown out of her marital home.

Betty, who had already lost her parents to AIDS, lost hope. Then a friend told her about the Orongo Widows and Orphans Group. "I now know I have rights and I will not run away the next time he assaults me," Betty says.

The Orongo Widows and Orphans Group was founded by Florence Gundo in 1999. She formed the group because, in addition to the practice of wife inheritance, Florence noticed that "widows were resorting to selling illicit liquor, and orphans were being used as herdsboys and maids."

"When you are inherited by your brother-in-law, it's almost impossible to ask him to get tested for HIV," Florence explains.

After attending a women's property rights workshop, Florence mobilized widows to teach them about their rights. "We started teaching women in churches, schools, even during funerals, and gradually their attitude started changing," Florence says.

The group has successfully reclaimed land snatched from widows and orphans. Moreover, the project has encouraged members to learn their HIV status, leading to greater acceptance of people living with HIV. Some members have even been trained to provide home-based care for those affected by HIV/AIDS.

The group still faces challenges. It cares for more than 300 orphans. Providing them food, support, and education is a monumental task. The group is also teaching women to be self-reliant by providing training in tailoring, horticulture, and other income-generating activities.

Written by Anne Waithera, a journalist for Citizen Radio based in Nairobi, Kenya. Anne was trained in responsible HIV/AIDS reporting through a PEPFAR-supported project.

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