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SOMALIA: Stigma, insecurity hold back HIV fight in Mogadishu

MOGADISHU, 3 May 2011 (IRIN) - Residents of Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, are understandably more concerned with dodging bullets than avoiding HIV, but this lack of knowledge means widespread ignorance about HIV prevention, while people who are HIV-positive are often ostracized by their communities.

Today, Nasteho Farah Elmi is an active member of an organization for people living with HIV/AIDS, but six years ago, when her family found out she was HIV-positive, they sent her away.

"When my relatives found out... they gave me 50,000 Somali shillings [US$1.80] because they didn't have any idea about the disease; they thought it could even be transmitted by looking at me," Elmi told IRIN/PlusNews. "Moving from Afgoye [southern Somalia] to Mogadishu was strange because I didn't know where to live.

"By Allah's mercy I formed a Somali civil society organization named SOPHA [Ururka Faya-dhawrka Soomaaliyeed], which has supported me," she added. "Now I am married a man who has HIV too and we continue to live together here in Mogadishu."

According to local civil society organizations in Mogadishu, more than 300 HIV-positive individuals are registered and receiving care and support, including food supplements from the UN World Food Programme.

"Five places are testing [for HIV] in Mogadishu... people are referred for psycho-social support after they are diagnosed," said Mohamed Sa'id, social director of the local NGO, South Central People Living with HIV. "Our members include civil servants, soldiers and so on, but they are not known because if anyone knew them, we are afraid they will be discriminated against."

But it is particularly hard to work in areas of Mogadishu controlled by the Islamist insurgent group, Al-Shabab.

"We [SOPHA] have two centres; a treatment centre in Marka, in Lower Shabelle region and our head office is in Mogadishu's government-controlled areas," said Elmi. "In Al-Shabab-controlled areas, we can't hold workshops because they already prohibited international aid organizations to operate in areas they control in south-central Somalia. For this reason, we hold the workshops in the government areas."

According to Dahabo Abdi, a local journalist, the result is precious little HIV knowledge in the city. "The people of Mogadishu do not receive enough awareness, except sometimes radio stations speak about it," she said.

"We are not like [the self-declared republic of] Somaliland, where I have seen in the media that the people are discussing HIV/AIDS in public," said Osman Libah, deputy health minister of Somalia's Transitional Federal Government.

Nevertheless, Elmi remains optimistic that the limited work going on in Mogadishu is having some impact on the attitudes of the city's residents.

"Several years ago, people never welcomed us because of the stigma they have about the disease, but nowadays it seems that things are changing."

maj/kr/mw

Theme(s): Care/Treatment - PlusNews, Education, HIV/AIDS (PlusNews), PWAs/ASOs - PlusNews, Conflict, Prevention - PlusNews, Security, Stigma/Human Rights/Law - PlusNews,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]