NIGERIA: A lethal dose of shame
Anti-AIDS billboard in Hausa featuring well-known northern actress
Kaduna, 18 October 2005 (IRIN) - When it became clear that Awa was dying of an AIDS-related illness, her family left her on the side of the road where the 40-year-old's body was found three days later.
Halima was a bit luckier. Her family didn't abandon her for having the virus. Instead, they put her in a corner of the family home where, to avoid any contact with the virus, they fed her by means of a bowl pushed to her with a stick.
According to AIDS workers in Nigeria, the stories of Awa and Halima, which are not their real names, are all too common in and around Kaduna, a city located 200 kilometres north of the national capital Abuja.
Across Nigeria, the prejudice and denial surrounding HIV/AIDS are major obstacles in trying to stem the spread of the pandemic. But the predominantly Muslim North presents special challenges.
Kaduna State, like its capital of the same name, has an estimated infection rate of six percent, slightly higher than the national average of five percent or, in raw numbers, about 4 million people. Yet anti-AIDS campaigns face a difficult fight.
"There's a lot of prejudice," said Mohammed Sagir Auwal, coordinator of the STD/AIDS Awareness and Prevention organisation in Kaduna. "But there's also a huge problem of poverty. Families just can't afford to look after people who are HIV-postive."
"For a long time," he added, "HIV awareness campaigns were seen as a way for the West to spread foreign ways of thinking among traditional Muslim communities," he added.A CITY CUT IN HALF
Kaduna in 2000 became one of 12 northern states to adopt Shariah or Islamic Law. The move was particularly contentious as Muslims and Christians make up roughly equal shares of the population. The waves of rioting that have broken out in the state capital since have left at least 3,000 people dead.
Although the two communities once mingled, living and working together in peace, today the Kaduna River marks the divide between the city's Christian and Muslim neighbourhoods.
Most HIV/AIDS organisations are on the Christian side of the river, making it difficult to reach Muslim communities, especially women, who have little access to information and health services, according to Andrew Yohanna at Kaduna's State Action Committee Against AIDS (SACA).
"Very few organisations work with Muslim women," Yohanna said. "The approach is crucial. If you get off on the wrong foot, you're in trouble. You can't just start talking directly about sexuality with them."
Reports about HIV-positive women being tortured, burned and abandoned have frightened many women, especially within the Muslim community, about seeking tests or treatment, according to local AIDS activists.
"Two Muslim women came to see us with their test results. They were HIV-positive and had pretty much decided to flee," said Ashi Appah, director of the Kaduna-based Gender and Human Values.
"There're also cases where the husband knows he's infected and takes ARVs but doesn't tell his wife," she added.GETTING RELIGIOUS LEADERS ON BOARD
Faced with such social difficulties, state officials and AIDS groups are trying to enlist the help of religious leaders and prominent members of the Muslim community.
The Sultan of Sokoto, the supreme leader of Nigeria's Muslims, took part in a radio and television HIV awareness campaign calling for abstinence and fidelity that was organised by the National Action Committee Against AIDS (NACA).
Fati Mohamed, a famous actress in the country's North, has also helped out with messages that are plastered on billboards all over town.
"I thought I knew all about HIV but I learned a lot during this campaign," she told IRIN, adding that Muslim women do not have enough information.
The Jama'atu Nasrul Islam (JNI), a grouping of Muslim organisations, and its Christian counterpart, the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), are increasingly active in raising HIV awareness among their respective communities and have also met with each other on a number of occasions.
"The existence of AIDS is slowly gaining acceptance," said SACA's Yohanna. "But there is still a lot of work to be done in the fight against ignorance, myths, and socio-cultural obstacles."
"We have to break through the wall of silence."