Inviolata Mmbwavi carries a tattered copy of the Kenyan constitution with her. “It is my weapon,” she tells me. “When someone says something that isn’t right under the law, I pull open my copy!”
The constitution is fragile and new. Written in 2010, it has yet to be fully implemented in Kenya. Based in part on the US constitution, it provides revolutionary rights to women and other marginalized persons. Including people with HIV and precludes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Although in practice, the constitution has gotten little practical traction. Inviolata is standing for Parliament in order to change that. To help implement what she told me is her “famous article 26” which ensures the rights of all persons under the law
The third of 10 children, Mmbwavi found out she was HIV + when she was just 19.
Inviolata ran away as the result of stigmatization by her family and the vicious gossip of her community. People with HIV were ostracized from the community, seen as dirty, associated with deviant behaviors and left to die.
But, Inviolata’s story is different. She turned her disease into an asset, using it as a sword. At age 25 she was asked to speak in front of Kenyan Parliament and share her story and “come out” as HIV positive. This was a groundbreaking move – and Invio was on the forefront.
Since then her activism has exploded. She is a feminist, proud to be a Kenyan woman, and believes all answers lie in the power of one woman educating another. She has been the director of the Grassroots Empowerment Trust, sending young girls to school in addition to sending all of her siblings to school. She speaks out internationally against the forced sterilization of women with HIV – which is still prevalent. She also speaks out about female genital mutilation – again still going on in her native Kenya.
Inviolata is wrapping up a brief tour of New York and Washington DC to raise funds for (fundraising is unheard of in Kenya and there is no monetary support provided by the political parties as you would see with say, the DNC here) and awareness of her campaign. And even more importantly the importance of the 2013 elections in Kenya and registering women to vote.
She would be the first HIV + person to serve which is historic in itself, but as a woman, she would be making even more history as women have been marginalized in politics since Kenya became free.
On a personal note, I was recently in Uganda and had a nerve wracking 24 hours. I had asked some people within the government some cutting questions, several Ugandan friends cautioned me to be careful, ‘things’ still happen in Uganda. A British journalist was deported, the week before my arrival another vanished. I reached out immediately to Inviolata in neighboring Kenya, asking her if it came to it, could I come to Kenya if I needed to lay low for a couple days. She answered immediately and unequivocally “yes” that I must come stay with her if things turned bad. During her trip to New York this week, I asked her why she offered up her home to a woman she had met only once. She told me because that is “what you do of course,” we help each other. One woman to another.
Andy Kopsa is a freelance writer based in New York City. She has written for The American Independent, RH Reality Check and AlterNet. She is a native Iowan and former Iowa newspaper editor. She blogs at Off The Record and you can find her on Twitter @andykopsa.
Photo credit Katja Heinemann.