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Kenya: Meeting Muslim leaders halfway on HIV education




 

GARISSA, 8 December 2009 (PlusNews) - "Desist from engaging in adultery, go for HIV tests, do not allow your sons and daughters to marry before they are tested... if you are positive go to the hospital and get free drugs."

The address could be mistaken for an HIV awareness lecture, but is part of a sermon being delivered by Sheikh Harun Rashid, a Muslim scholar at the Isiolo Jamia Mosque in Kenya's Eastern Province.

Muslim leaders in Kenya have often found themselves at odds with HIV campaigners and their messages, with some even declaring "war" on the condom at one point. But a new strategy, dubbed "Twaweza", Swahili for "We Can", aims to bring influential religious leaders into the fight against HIV by encouraging them to spread HIV messages while remaining true to their religious beliefs.

"The Twaweza project engages influential religious leaders, teachers and community elders; all segments of the population are involved in the programme, which seeks to change behavioural risks and apply effective channels of communication," said Ibrahim Mohamed, programme coordinator for the AIDS Population and Health Integrated Assistance in Kenya's North Eastern Province (APHIA II-NEP), a joint initiative by the government and USAID.

Twaweza - which has been running since August - is part of a wider HIV prevention effort in the region that seeks to spread the word about HIV in culturally sensitive ways. Muslim clerics, for instance, are not expected to preach about condom use, but can speak about aspects of HIV prevention that are in line with Islamic teachings. The programme uses some Islamic texts to encourage the community not to take sexual risks.

Compromise

"The Quran - holy book of Islam - and the Hadiths - the practices of the Prophet Mohammed - are both clear about the need to show compassion to people who are unwell and to seek treatment for health conditions," said Abdullahi Mahat Daud, deputy director of APHIA II-NEP. "Abstinence before marriage and faithfulness within marriage are also required.

"The issue of condom use is very sensitive among religious leaders and the community at large, so it is not an issue we put emphasis on," he added. "Although within Islam condom use is acceptable under certain circumstances - such as within [certain contexts of] marriage - widespread use outside of acceptable conditions makes religious leaders unwilling to discuss them."

Muslim leaders in the region say they appreciate the fact that new efforts to include them in the fight against HIV are not pressuring them to promote behaviour with which they disagree. "A sheikh will be considered a mad person or even risk being killed if he promotes the use of condoms inside a mosque... it was impossible to get our support with this style of campaign," said Sheikh Hussein Mahat, an official of the National Muslim Leaders� Forum in the province.

Several imams told IRIN/PlusNews they were now actively involved in informing the community about HIV transmission, protection, acceptance of the existence of the pandemic and seeking assistance for those infected or affected.

Campaign message

The campaign uses T-shirts printed only on the front due to fears that in the mosque, messages printed on the back of T-shirts could distract people from the sermon. Women are given printed bags and umbrellas rather than T-shirts, which would be covered up by the traditional Muslim dress.

"We could not use lesos [shawls] or write the HIV awareness messages on the hijab [traditional Muslim dress for women] as it is not right for people to read what is written on a passing woman�s clothes," said Ibrahim Hassan Abdi, APHIA II-NEP's behaviour change communications coordinator.

The campaign also uses posters and billboards featuring people the local community can easily identify with - such as young men and women in Muslim dress - as well as radio adverts and car stickers; the messages, originally in Arabic, also appear in the local Somali and Borana languages, as well as English and Swahili.

Although North Eastern Province has the country's lowest HIV prevalence at just 1 percent, research in the northeastern town of Garissa and the suburb of Eastleigh in the capital Nairobi - largely populated by people from the northeast - found high levels of risky sexual behaviour; 22 percent of men and 35 percent of women in Garissa had engaged in transactional sex, while 9 percent of men and 14 percent of women had been forced to have sex.



 


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Information in this article was accurate in December 8, 2009. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.