HARGEISA, 14 December 2009 (SomalilandPress) – When a young HIV-positive woman recently passed away in Hargeisa, capital of the self-declared republic of Somaliland, none of the women in her family volunteered to carry out the traditional Islamic rite of washing the body before burial.
“Her clothes are still hanging where she died because people think they can be affected if they touch them,” said Abdillahi Omar*, a man in his 40s. Eventually, a group of HIV-positive women volunteered to wash the woman’s body.
Most people in Somalia still avoid touching or associating with people living with the virus. “Each one of us who has announced that he or she has HIV/AIDS was thrown out of his or her family. I was a soldier … as soon as they got the information [about my HIV status], I was told not to enter the camp – they considered me as being the epidemic itself,” Omar said.
“Our children are sent back home by the school administrators for no reason other than the fact that their parents have HIV … we experience it daily,” said Amina Ali*, a mother of four.
Need for education
Experts attribute the intense stigmatisation of people living with the virus to ignorance and the strong association of HIV with immorality and ‘non-Muslim’ behaviour; United Nations estimates say less than 10 percent of the population have accurate knowledge about HIV transmission.
“I know that HIV can be transmitted by using the same toothbrush as someone who is infected, or if the same [injection] needle used on an HIV-positive person is used on you,” said Sa’id Ahmed, a student at the University of Hargeisa. “If someone in my family had AIDS … of course I would feel the fear of the disease.”
Sexual intercourse is the main method of transmission in Somalia, but Ahmed did not mention sex as a way of transmitting HIV and there is no HIV education in schools.
“We have carried out a lot of awareness to reduce the stigma, as well as giving people information about how the disease transmitted,” said Hassan Omar Hagga, director of training at the Somaliland AIDS Commission (SOLNAC) secretariat.
Somalia’s most recent progress report to the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS noted that widespread stigma and discrimination were among the factors raising HIV vulnerability.
High stigma and low risk perception mean few people are tested for HIV, and the country’s antiretroviral (ARV) programme is still in its infancy. “Of an estimated 13,000 people living with HIV in Somaliland, only 800 have access to ARVs,” said Mohamed Hussein Osman, executive director of SOLNAC.
SOLNAC has also been trying to push through parliament proposed legislation giving rights to people living with HIV, and making it illegal for doctors to reveal a patient’s HIV status without their permission.
“[The draft] law criminalises discrimination against the people who live with the disease, specifies their requirements for care, and stipulates punishments for those who try to deliberately transmit the virus,” said Hassan Omar Hagga.
Somaliland has an HIV prevalence of 1.4 percent, but recent data suggest that the Horn of Africa could be moving from a concentrated epidemic to a generalised one.
* Not their real names