International: HIV/AIDS in Muslim countries

Positive Muslims
In the past two decades a significant amount of work has been done looking at the AIDS epidemic in Sub Saharan Africa, Asia, Europe and north America. However, relatively little has been done in Muslim areas, especially Arab Muslim countries in MENA.
In 2002, Ockenden International began a wide ranging consultation in largely Muslim areas of eastern Sudan. In the early stages of that consultation, many people replied that it was not, could not be a problem. It somehow was a problem of ‘others’: of prostitutes, of non Muslims, of foreigners. It was a response similar to that in Europe and the US in the early 1980s when it was seen to be a gay problem, and therefore not one which mainstream society needs to deal with.
Ockenden came across many taboo areas, subjects that people found difficult to discuss. Sexual habits, the use of sex workers, female circumcision, condom usage, the role of men having more than one wife, gay sex, the role of morality in general.

Similar issues exist across the Arab Muslim world, which in some cases make it difficult to address the relatively small but serious and growing number of people affected by the virus. And they exist too in non Arab Muslim countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan where researchers have had great difficulty in understanding and documenting sexual practices.

In Sudan, Ockenden found that by simply talking about the issue and raising it in newspapers and on the radio made a difference. Although the prevalence rate may be as low as 2.4 percent, it is high enough for many to know someone who has died, or is ill.

In Uganda, Ockenden worked with (non Arab) Muslim communities in the north. Working with the Mosques and with the culture and religion, brought clear results. Indeed, religious institutions, mosques and Imams, are vital educators in the fight against AIDS.

We can see the same things happening in eastern Sudan, in our work funded by the UK Department for International Development. Slowly, it is possible to share more information and to work with people to understand this is a problem for all.

It has to be recognized that HIV/AIDS education is not a single template. Different cultures require different working solutions, based on their cultural and religious beliefs. However, it is clear that without increased awareness and without an understanding of vulnerability, people will die needlessly.

Throughout the Muslim world there is a need to recognize that HIV is here to stay for at least the coming years and that a proactive approach, through culturally relevant dialogue and a response based on needs is necessary.

Organisations like Ockenden have a role to play in raising the profile of HIV education and providing advice on how to respond. Ultimately though, responses have to be thought through by governments, communities and, ultimately, individuals.

16 February 2006