NIGERIA: Focus on HIV/AIDS in the north
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
BILLIRI, 13 February (PLUSNEWS) - Mary Audu is 17 years old and in secondary school in Billiri, a rural town in Nigeria's northeastern Gombe State. Until two years ago she had heard nothing about HIV/AIDS. That was when following a persistent ailment, a doctor in a local hospital asked her to have a blood test.
"It was the doctor who on going through the test result explained to me that I was infected with HIV," she told PlusNews. "When the doctor said this it meant nothing to me. Even when he explained to me that HIV leads to AIDS and has no cure it still didn't quite register."
It was only later when a non-governmental organisation visited her school a few months later to provide students counselling on how to avoid HIV/AIDS, she said, that it finally dawned on her what she was up against. But before long, the news somehow got around, perhaps through hospital sources, that she was living with HIV. People she met on the road to school now began to
taunt her about it.
"It was at this point that depression now set in," she recalled. "I wanted to die and often for days I would go without food, praying to God to take my life."
Mary Audu is not alone. The combination of ignorance and misconceptions about HIV/AIDS is putting a huge wedge in the way of efforts to combat the pandemic in a region of Nigeria where poverty and local customs make young people particularly vulnerable to the infection. While the national prevalence rate is 5.8 percent, the rates for parts of the northern region
exceed 10 percent.
While the far north Nigeria is predominantly Muslim, large swathes of the area immediately south, from Borno and Adamawa states in the east, through Gombe, to Niger and Kebbi states in the west, have large populations of Christians and other non-Muslims. But one thing the Muslim and Christian areas have in common is early sex and early marriage.
"By the time a girl is 12 years old parents are ready to give them out in marriage," Johnson Adamu, a teacher, told IRIN. "Often before they are 16-17, and they may have had two or three children, they rebel against their husbands. They now leave their children with their aged parents and head to the cities to become commercial sex workers."
The progression from early marriage to rebellion and prostitution is so common in parts of northern Nigeria that it has become an accepted way of life, Adamu said.
Where women do not get married early, they, along with their male counterparts, are expected to start fending for themselves from their early teens. Very few have access to any education and all have to eke a living out of the soil through subsistence farming, the primary occupation of the communities in this region of Nigeria.
According to Adamu, one of the consequences is that young people from very early on are not under the disciplinary influence of parents and schools taken for granted in many societies. They now find they are free to do as they wish. For girls sex quickly become a convenient way to have fun and make some extra income. While the boys who go to work in the farms to earn a
living are easily inclined to spend their earnings on girlfriends. In such a situation of widespread promiscuity, sexually transmitted diseases spread rapidly.
"Many young people between the ages of 12 and 16 are infected with HIV in my area, not to talk about the adults," said Audu. "Yet most people are not even aware of the disease, and many who have heard about it don't even believe it exists." She believes the situation is bound to get worse unless a massive and intensive awareness campaign is mounted in the region.
Some analysts see a link between the fear of HIV/AIDS and the rise in religious fundamentalism of the Muslim and Christian varieties in Nigeria's northern region. In the Muslim areas this has manifested in the introduction of strict Islamic or Sharia law prescribing death by stoning for adultery and public lashing for pre-marital sex. In the Christian areas evangelists have become more aggressive and strident in their preaching.
"Ironically, this hardening of positions often lead to religious and ethnic clashes," Bala Abubakar, a sociology teacher at the university at Bauchi in the north, told PlusNews. "But the truth is that the unrest often derive from the same causes - deepening poverty, moral decay and the desire to right the wrongs of the society through religious piety."
International humanitarian agencies, such as the United Nations Children's Fund are collaborating with many local non-governmental organisations to penetrate many of these communities to provide education on how to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS. Part of the results have been the type of counselling brought to Audu's school that made her aware of the seriousness of her plight. Apart from regular counselling, she has been selected to benefit from a government programme of antiretroviral treatment.
Abubakar believes that such measures are commendable but are not enough. "The main fuel for the spread of this epidemic in this region are deep-seated poverty and ignorance. And the key is tackling this poverty and opening up access to education for the young boys and girls now being claimed by AIDS," he said.