HIV prevalence in the population of Kenya increased steadily and consistently by about 1 percentage point a year from 1990 to 1999, with each percentage point representing the potential for thousands of orphans and children otherwise affected by AIDS. During this period, policy and law to protect those affected by AIDS and well-funded action to promote prevention could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. The Government of Kenya did little during this period to mobilize its population against the AIDS onslaught, even though its neighbor, Uganda, was providing a good example of aggressive and effective state action against HIV/AIDS. Kenya was not alone in its inaction in Africa or globally. Uganda's experience in the 1980s and 1990s was exceptional; Kenya's inaction was typical of much of the rest of Africa.
Since 1999, there has been greater state action and donor support for AIDS prevention programs in Kenya. The government is to be commended on taking steps to bolster prevention and treatment programs by developing policies and laws that will facilitate access to drugs and condoms. Equally essential to the struggle against HIV/AIDS is the care and protection of children affected in various ways by AIDS. Over a million children orphaned and otherwise affected by AIDS in Kenya, particularly those living in poverty, are at high risk of engaging in hazardous work, finding themselves on the street, losing property that might be the key to their future protection, and being out of school and cut off from information on AIDS prevention. Current laws do not establish mechanisms adequate to ensure the protection of these children. Even where there is no intent to discriminate, these risks fall with disparate impact on AIDS-affected children because their numbers dominate all categories of children in need of special protection.
The state cannot completely compensate for the loss of traditional family and community-based protections for children. Sadly, the capacity of the state to protect the rights of AIDS-affected children is impeded by the impact of AIDS itself, including the epidemic's weakening of the extended family and community-based structures. The health sector is overwhelmed by the needs of persons with HIV/AIDS; the education sector is weakened by the deaths of teachers and administrators. Nonetheless, some basic protections can be provided by the state, and their provision for children affected by AIDS cannot be put off. If these children are not protected, the risks of abuse, neglect and discrimination that they face will be amplified in succeeding generations as the epidemic rages on.
Children's rights in the HIV/AIDS crisis, as in other contexts, are not subordinate to other rights. The government of Kenya must make AIDS-affected children a priority for policy and legal protections. Donors supporting Kenya's work in combating HIV/AIDS should also understand the threat to children's rights and well-being that the epidemic represents and reflect this understanding urgently in their assistance.