HARGEISA, 14 December 2009 (PlusNews) - 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
"[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