SOUTH AFRICA: Positive Muslims 'buddies' offer emotional support
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
DURBAN, 29 March (PLUSNEWS) - When Fatima Sayed (not her real name), an HIV-positive mother, is feeling down she knows she can pick up the phone and call her 'buddy', Amina Nordien, who signed up as a volunteer friend and mentor to Muslims living with the virus in Cape Town, South Africa.
Sayed's husband and little boy are also HIV-positive, but the young family fears the disapproval of the community and have decided not to disclose their status to friends and family.
Instead, two years ago they turned to Positive Muslims, an NGO offering education and support to Muslims living with HIV/AIDS.
Nordien and Sayed have shared regular phone calls, endless cups of coffee and many long walks since then, giving Sayed the chance to share her thoughts and talk about her worries in a safe environment.
"Even though I was rarely able to give practical help, I could offer an ear to Fatima," said Nordien about her experience as a buddy. "Being able to talk to me lifted her spirits - she wasn't so alone anymore," she told PlusNews.
Staff at Positive Muslims have found that their HIV-positive members benefited emotionally as well as physically from having a buddy, becoming healthier than before.
Based on this success, the organisation is now planning to make the buddy system one of its official programmes. Traditional care programmes often focus on treatment and counselling services, without taking into account something as simple as emotional support in the form of friendship.
"If the mind is not healthy, this will impact negatively on the person's immune system," said Positive Muslims director and clinical psychologist Rehana Kader.
Without emotional support, people suffering from AIDS often experience depression, feelings of isolation and alienation. "HIV-positive persons need a friend - having a counsellor is not enough to maintain their mental wellbeing," she added.
Before becoming a buddy, volunteers are required to undergo one week of intensive training with follow-up education in counselling, and medical knowledge about HIV and its treatment, Kader explained. The buddy is then able to give emotional support as well as help to monitor an HIV-positive member's health.
The buddy system is particularly important in the Muslim community, where disclosure rates remain low despite extensive awareness-raising campaigns. "HIV/AIDS is still broadly seen as a punishment from God because you have sinned or led an immoral lifestyle," Kader commented.
Consequently, few Muslims have dared to disclose their status to their families, and discrimination remains a major problem.
Positive Muslims came about when Faghmieda Miller, the first Muslim woman to disclose her status publicly in South Africa, encountered almost total ignorance, denial and rejection when she revealed she was HIV-positive.
Miller, Kader and a few other Muslim activists decided to launch an NGO promoting the message that it was not important how a person had contracted the virus, but that they found support. "We wanted to develop a more compassionate approach," Kader said.
Apart from the buddy programme, the organisation runs research projects, offers individual and family counselling and support groups, and presents awareness-raising programmes on community radio stations, in schools and companies.