Islamic agencies tackle HIV stigma

Aid groups work to combat discrimination and raise awareness of the disease in Africa.

    Mavis says she has been ostracised by the very people she had hoped would support her 

    Mavis spoke softly and stared into the distance as she recounted how her community ostracised her and left her feeling disgraced when they discovered she was living with HIV.

    "I can't deny what I am and what is going on with my body. I need to face it and I need the support of my friends and community," she says.

    Mavis is one of the 5.7 million people in South Africa living with HIV, many of whom have faced stigma and discrimination from their friends, families and community.

    Living with her son, sister and niece in a one-room tin shack in a township on the outskirts of Johannesburg, she says she was forced into hiding to avoid ridicule.

    "When I first disclosed my status it was very difficult. I was living in my family home and I just hid for three months because I knew people would criticise me and my mother," Mavis said.

    Ostracised from her neighbourhood, Mavis has been verbally abused by people who were once her friends.

    Her two older children were taken from her by members of her extended family who believed she was no longer able to care for them.

    "Many people are very ignorant. When they see someone who is very thin they think she is HIV-positive," she says.

    "People sit and point fingers at others but they don't even know their own status. People tell me that others are gossiping about me and that hurts so much."

    Facing discrimination

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    People living with HIV are often discriminated against because the condition is associated with so-called 'immoral' behaviour, such as drug-use and prostitution.

    This perception is especially acute in Muslim communities where there is a belief that adherence to Islamic doctrine and abstinence from extra-marital sex can shield people from HIV.

    By default, any 'un-Islamic' practices are then linked to HIV.

    However, such arguments ignore the realities of post-conflict life in Africa.

    Forced from their homes and into refugee camps by conflict, many women struggle to provide shelter, food and medicines for themselves and their children.

    With few options, some resort to the sex trade for survival.

    Other women may contract HIV as a result of the widespread incidence of rape during times of war and conflict.

    Fear of discrimination prevents many people from getting tested for HIV and from accessing medication.

    In time, the failure to assess one's medical condition increases the chances that people with HIV will compromise their health and the health of their partners.

    Mavis is considered to be one of the lucky ones because she is aware of her medical condition and is now on antiretroviral medication.

    "ARVs (antiretroviral medication) are very good for me. Before I could not even sit and talk with someone for five minutes as I used to get very tired. But since using them I am much better and I can now laugh for 20 minutes," she says.

    Islam and HIV

    In 2007, Islamic Relief, a UK-based aid agency, brought together 150 religious leaders, HIV practitioners, people living with HIV and representatives from other NGOs to address the stigma and adverse social reactions associated with the disease.

    The International Consultations on Islam and HIV aimed to find practical yet "Islamically-appropriate" responses to the HIV pandemic, enabling relief agencies to more effectively address the disease and its fallout in Muslim communities.

    Muslim leaders were shown that HIV is a real concern in their communities despite the relatively lower prevalence of the disease compared to the rest of the world.

    However, the number of infected Muslims is on the rise; epidemics in Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan are all increasing, sometimes at a rapid rate.

    In many Muslim communities rates of HIV infection may appear deceptively low because few people are tested for HIV for fear of rejection by their friends and family.

    Ending discrimination

    Islamic relief agencies have been providing Mavis with support and medical care
    Muslim leaders are urged to use faith to end discrimination against HIV-positive members of their communities and those vulnerable to infection.

    Relief agencies are educating religious leaders about HIV and empowering them with the information to pass on to their congregations; the duty of care that Muslims should show towards those who are HIV-positive is also stressed.

    In the past many Muslim organisations who attempted to address the issue of HIV tended to focus on how people contracted the virus.

    This created a distinction between those deemed to have contracted HIV through 'sinful' (such as extra-marital intercourse, drug use) and 'non-sinful' (such as blood transfusions, mother-to-child transmission) means.

    This prioritised who should receive medical care and who should not.

    However, after addressing the realities of how people become infected and listening to the personal testimonies of Muslims living with HIV, delegates at the Consultations began to realise that this division did more harm than good.

    The priority should instead be to keep people safe, and if they are HIV-positive, to provide them with non-judgemental support regardless of how they became infected.

    Role Muslims play

    Cassiem Khan, the country director for Islamic Relief in South Africa and executive committee member of the African Network of Religious Leaders Living with Aids (ANARELA), said: "Religious leaders have a unique and important role to play in combating the spread of HIV in Muslim communities.

    "They can help to educate people about how to keep themselves safe as well as teaching them about the need for compassion for those who are HIV-positive."

    Khan said that HIV-positive Muslims often feel that they have no one to turn to for support and assistance.

    "This is not just about medical care but also psychological care and social support. Therefore it is crucial that they know that the leaders and members of their community are not judging them but reaching out to them with love and compassion, in line with Islamic teaching," he said.

    Children orphaned, vulnerable

    Children at a day care centre run by Islamic Relief in Annerdale, Johannesburg
    In sub-Saharan Africa alone, 12 million children under the age of 18 have been orphaned as a result of Aids; some 1.2 million of them live in South Africa.

    To help support some of these vulnerable children, Islamic Relief has been providing households with food, access to health care facilities, clothing, extra-curricular activities, education and psycho-social  support through a network of community-based care givers.

    Mavis' four-year-old son Moses is one of those who is benefitting from this support which means that the family has access to the basic necessities of life, including sufficient food.

    This is very important for Mavis who is on ARVs and needs enough food to ensure her medication is effective.

    However, relief agencies have also identified morale as an integral part of health care provision and ensure that HIV-positive patients receive considerable emotional support.

    "What I like about the support the Islamic Relief workers give me is that I now know that there are other people like me. They accept me for the way I am," Mavis said.

    Islamic Relief believe they have made progress in involving more Muslim communities in the fight against HIV. They hope that the stigma associated with the virus will gradually subside allowing people better access to education, testing, treatment and support.

    "We must all work to put [the] stigma aside," Mavis said.

    "The stigma helps HIV to spread."

    Helen Mould is an aid worker with the British NGO Islamic Relief and specialises in development in Africa and HIV/Aids.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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