| Issue 374
and Regional Affairs |
HARGEISA, March 27, 2009 – When three
attempts to cure Abdulhakim*, 42, of tuberculosis failed, the father of
nine living in Hargeysa, capital of Somaliland, took his doctor's advice
and tested for HIV - the result came back positive.
His family's reaction was predictable: his brothers stopped grazing
their goats and sheep alongside his, and many of his relatives wouldn't
touch him. "My wife and children are the only ones who have stood by my
side," he told IRIN/PlusNews.
Abdulhakim finds it hard to blame his relatives – after all, until he
was diagnosed he held similar misconceptions. "I thought AIDS was a
disease for fornicators and immoral people, but I later got more
HIV-positive people in Somalia live with constant stigma, are ostracized
and often even thrown out of their homes for fear that they might infect
Islamic religious leaders in Somaliland, some of whom have become
involved in HIV prevention efforts, are now stepping in to persuade
communities to treat people with HIV more humanely. Islam has an
enormous influence on everyday life in Somalia, and religious leaders
have the power to sway the population's views on HIV/AIDS.
"As religious leaders we feel it is one of our main duties to be kind
and helpful to the less fortunate members of society," said Sheikh
Mohamed Haji Mahamoud Hersi, who is part of an organization of Muslim
leaders that travels the country preaching. "Islam is about compassion,
and people living with HIV deserve to be treated with kindness. The
disease can happen to anyone."
Hersi was one of the first religious leaders to counsel people living
with HIV. "I tell them that they have to keep contact with God and to
live a normal life," he said. "It really keeps their spirits up; the day
religious leaders visit is a very special day for them."
Abdulhakim agreed. "A person needs different types of support -
physical, economic, medical and also spiritual; when the Imams talk to
us we feel more stable, like things will be okay," he said.
The religious leaders hope to influence communities to become more
tolerant of people living with HIV. "They really listen to us, so if the
people see that we find no problem talking with their HIV-positive
neighbors, then they may also accept them," Hersi said.
The UN Development Programme (UNDP) and UNAIDS have been training
religious leaders to teach local communities about behavior change.
"Religious leaders need training so that they can say the right words,
and avoid words that can cause additional problems to people living with
HIV," said Gulleid Osman, executive director of Talowadag, a coalition
of NGOs that cares for people living with HIV.
Osman said most religious leaders were coming round to the view that
they should stand up for the rights of HIV-infected people. "We recently
held a meeting with 24 religious leaders, and only one refused to be
involved in counseling people living with HIV - he said it [HIV] was
something for non-Muslims ... but most of them no longer feel that way."
UNDP is working with the Somaliland AIDS Commission, local NGOs and
Muslim scholars to develop a strategy that formally establishes the role
of religious leaders in the fight against AIDS, and to harmonize the
messages they deliver.