One of the most significant discussions today is women's equality and empowerment and has become a leading issue in the new global economy. Despite copious NGO's and local charities working for women's rights and empowerment, the extent to which such institutions are successful is variable. On the surface, many of these organizations appear effective and there is no doubt that every centre is a step in the right direction towards gender equality, yet in the long term and wider context just how sustainable and empowering are they? The lack of equal education rights for women in some countries results in lower incomes and standards of living for them and their children as higher paying and skilled jobs are less obtainable. There is also a correlation between the spread of HIV and domestic violence towards women in strongly male dominated areas and patriarchal societies.
A major concern for women in Kenya is the stigmatization faced from their family and community after contracting HIV. They often lose their jobs, any support from or contact with their kin and are confronted with poverty and ostracism. The Living Positive Kenya Centre, a local donor-funded charitable initiative in the Ngong, Rift Valley area of Kenya, operates a Women's Economic Empowerment Programme (WEEP) for local women who have HIV/AIDS. The eighteen-month programme is split into three six-month phases, running from nine to five every weekday. Ten women are enrolled on each phase beginning with HIV Intervention. The second phase is Skill Building where the women are taught to make craft products such as beaded jewellery, bags and cards and also learn how to produce larger items such as mosquito nets and school uniforms. The final phase is Business Plan Development where the women are taught to manage business and finance. Once they graduate the programme the women use this knowledge to set up their own businesses. The Centre also offers food, accommodation and psycho counseling. The women's children attend a school established by the charity.
So, for the women attending the Living Positive Kenya Centre it would seem that their family and community perceive them differently. The skills they learn at the WEEP Centre appear to earn them more respect among the community than other women who are victims of domestic violence and/or HIV and are unable, for whatever reason, to take part in the programme. The women are viewed by their community as determined and striving to better themselves and achieve a higher status in the local society.
In a wider context however, the women still have limited independence and authority and are still constrained by patriarchy and gender inequality. This is largely due to gender stigmatization and the lack of education and knowledge required for a higher paying job, which would lift them out of poverty. Despite the WEEP's contribution to the women's raised profile in Ngong, the work they do is still contained within the narrow parameters of the informal sector. Therefore, though perceptions of the women themselves are more positive, their position, like that of women in general in the local community, remains static - low status and, in varying degrees, subordinate.
Thus, one can argue that despite aid programmes enhancing women's lives, more needs to be done to change the perception, and the position in general, of women in Ngong and perhaps women who have attended similar aid organizations worldwide. The formal academic education the WEEP Centre gives to their children, both girls and boys, however, may give rise to an improving situation, where the incidence of domestic violence and HIV are reduced, and the empowerment of women and levels of gender equality are increased. Gender equality, domestic violence and HIV are serious subjects and need to be of global importance requiring government intervention on a local, national and ultimately global scale.