In-depth: World AIDS Day 2002
BURKINA FASO: Preaching a new message
President Blaise Campaore has committed his government to tackling HIV/AIDS, in collaboration with civil society
OUAGADOUGOU, 1 December 2002 (IRIN) - The mosques in Burkina Faso are preaching a new message - tolerance for people living with HIV and AIDS, regardless of religion.
"In the beginning the sensitisation was only taking place in the mosques where we taught abstinence before marriage and fidelity," explained Souleymane Kone, a member of the Islamic coordination committee against AIDS and sexually transmitted infections.
"But we have decided to strengthen the commitment of Muslims against AIDS because we realised that the infected persons are our brothers, sisters, children and parents. At all levels the fight against AIDS is the affair of the whole population because it is not only the 'sexual wanderers' who get infected," he said.
The plan involves a "humanitarian caravan" to tour the country, providing counselling and information on HIV/AIDS. Some 150 of the poorest affected families would also receive financial assistance.
"Our strength lies in our members first, and then comes the financial aid," said Koné. "We are going to get out of our mosques and go to the people to insist that they must take adequate measures so that the pandemics regresses in our country."
Just over half of the 11 million people in the arid Sahelian country are Muslim. Christians make up 30 percent and traditional religions the remaining 18 percent.
The decision by the Muslim community to confront issues surrounding HIV/AIDS has been regarded as a major breakthrough in Burkina Faso's struggle against the epidemic in a country where just over 7 percent of the population is HIV positive.
"Religious leaders can play a major role in information dissemination that can help reduce discrimination and stigmatisation of AIDS victims - most of the time they are the origin of all this," said Mamadou Sawadogo, the chairman of the National Network of People Living with HIV. "They are the ones along with the traditional leaders who spread the idea that AIDS is a result of sexual wandering and infidelity."
Senior Muslim clerics agree that out of their ranks have come attitudes that have encouraged stigma and denial.
"We are [now] telling our people that AIDS is a disease like any other, and there are ways to avoid it and medicines to help you live longer, as a way of ending the old discourse Muslims used to hear," said El Hadj Sakande, an imam of a mosque in the capital, Ouagadougou.
But in what remains a traditional society, with grinding poverty and an illiteracy rate of 70 percent, changing popular perceptions remains a struggle.
"I came to the realisation that if people discriminate against me, it is because they do not have the information I have about AIDS. So I want to bring them to the same level of information that I have," explained Sawadogo.
Claudine Vebamba, deputy chairwoman of the anti-AIDS group Association for Life, holds group discussions with Muslim women once a fortnight.
"We have more and more of them coming, even accepting to be tested. But the problem remains with polygamous families, how to get them to bring their husbands and the other wives so that we can 'save' those who are not infected yet, when one of the family is infected," she said.
According to Vebamba, while younger people are more comfortable with the idea of safe sex and AIDS awareness, the hardest job has been to convince older generations. In some conservative families HIV-positive relatives are thrown out of the family home, she added.
Sala Kabore is living with AIDS. Her husband left home when she was still pregnant. She gets little support from her uncle with whom she is now living, as he views her as someone who is already dead, Kabore explained. "Everything I touch is thrown away or washed when I turn my back."
According to Siaka Traore, information officer for Promaco, the main condom marketing group in Burkina, HIV/AIDS campaigns need to focus on life, "instead of talking about death. We must tell people that AIDS is there, but we can still live".
"We already have a lot of HIV-positive persons, what do we do with them? They are our brothers and sisters and we must help them live with the disease as the sole solution, instead of discriminating against them," Traore said. BURKINA FASO: PlusNews Country Profile