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IRIN PlusNews HIV/AIDS News and information service | Southern Africa | SOUTH AFRICA: HIV-positive Muslims take comfort in their faith | PWAs ASOs, Stigma Human rights Law | Focus
Saturday 16 December 2006
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SOUTH AFRICA: HIV-positive Muslims take comfort in their faith

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

©  Mujahid Safodien

Zainab Majawa has found shelter at the Muslim AIDS Programme's Care Centre for HIV positive women and children in Johannesburg.

JOHANNESBURG, 26 May (PLUSNEWS) - When Zainab Majawa discovered she was HIV positive, she begged her husband to be tested, but he refused and became so abusive that she took her six-year-old daughter and left. While denial and blame are not unusual when it comes to HIV and AIDS, the Majawas' Muslim faith has rigid rules regarding sexual conduct that tend to further discourage openness and acceptance of the disease.

After becoming sick with tuberculosis Majawa called the Islamic Careline, a confidential counselling service, and was put in touch with the Muslim AIDS Programme (MAP), a national organisation.

MAP offered her shelter at their Care Centre for women and children infected or affected by HIV and AIDS, housed in a nondescript brick building in the predominantly Muslim neighbourhood of Mayfair in Johannesburg. There is no sign outside to distinguish it from other houses and no doorbell to disturb its residents.

"We don't want people coming around unannounced and bothering them," explained Ayesha Hathurani, MAP's provincial programme manager.

Five women and eight children are living at the Centre. Majawa, originally from Malawi and with only one family member in Johannesburg, has been there for over a year and earns a stipend cooking meals for the other residents.

"We try to give them the proper nourishing foods and medical assistance, and we also try to lift them spiritually as well as emotionally," said Hathurani. "Obviously, there's no cure for HIV, but we feel that if they live healthily in all the spheres, they'll live longer and be part of society again."

The Islamic Careline caters for the emotional 'sphere' through its counselling services and a monthly support group; a second partner organisation, the Islamic Medical Association, has a group of doctors on call to deal with health issues; a third partner group, the Jamiatul Ulama (the Council of Muslim Theologians), attends to the residents' spiritual needs.

MAP's literature is very clear on its view that the root cause of HIV/AIDS is "immoral sexual behaviour", which it lists as adultery, homosexuality and the consumption of intoxicants: "the three social evils that are most vehemently condemned by Islam".

Hathurani insisted that the women at the Centre are not stigmatised: "It's in the Qur'an - we shouldn't judge. Islam teaches us to be compassionate, no matter what. We're not asking them, 'how did you get this disease?' We're here to care for them."

The organisation has been in operation for nine years, but the Care Centre opened just three years ago, after Hathurani discovered that an HIV-positive woman she was counselling had been abandoned by her husband and could not find a shelter that also catered for the religious needs of herself and her son.

"She had to continue to stay in this non-Muslim home where they couldn't give her halaal food [permitted by Islamic law] or a nice space to pray," said Hathurani. "She was getting sick and she started to worry that her child would be left behind in a non-Muslim orphanage."

After the woman's death, MAP appealed to the local Muslim community for help. A businessman donated the house and others donated their skills to renovate it. An HIV-positive couple from Soweto, a township on the outskirts of Johannesburg, were recruited as caretakers. The boy is now 12 years old and MAP is looking for premises to accommodate him and other HIV-positive men in need of assistance.

MAP's outreach programme extends beyond Mayfair and the Muslim community to help women like Pascalina, 19, an HIV-positive mother from Alexandra township. Both her parents had died and she had a dangerously sick baby, but the Centre gave her a safe place to stay and treatment for her child. Six months later her baby is doing well and Pascalina has changed her name to Rookaya and taken to wearing a head scarf and a long, shapeless robe.

"Since I moved here, I saw them praying and I thought I'd like to do the same thing," she said. "Now I'm learning the Arabic stuff and trying to learn the Qur'an. It's helped me a lot."

Several women at the Centre spoke of their Muslim faith as a source of strength, but Riana Jacobs, a support group facilitator for MAP and one of only two Muslim women in South Africa to speak publicly about their HIV-positive status, said that discovering her condition eight years ago initially presented a challenge to her religious beliefs.

"I felt like I had let people down - not just my parents, but God. Now I find a lot of inner peace through meditation," she said.

Jacobs believes that Islam's strict prescriptions relating to chastity and fidelity tend to work as a barrier to disclosure - it was six years before she told her parents and another year before she made the decision to go public.

"My mother was devastated, but my father was surprisingly accepting," Jacobs recalled. "For the first year after I went public, people in my community stared endlessly, but now they're used to the idea."

She believes MAP does fantastic work but feels more could be achieved if other Muslims were open about their status. "There are so many people doing awareness programmes and it's always on television, but Muslim people tend to live in a very conservative, protected environment," she said. "They tend to not want to investigate something that's not supposed to be part of an Islamic lifestyle."

There are no figures to indicate just how widespread HIV is in the Muslim community, but an informal survey conducted by Positive Muslims, a Cape Town-based group, found that every doctor contacted in traditionally Muslim areas had dealt with HIV positive Muslims.

Based on what she has seen, Jacobs believes HIV is prevalent in Muslim communities. "Young people are engaging in pre-marital sex and parents just tend to pretend it's not happening," she said. "I tell them, 'Look, your kids are doing this.'"


Recent SOUTH AFRICA Reports
Positive prevention,  7/Dec/06
AIDS 'paradigm shift' in life insurance,  5/Dec/06
HIV/AIDS still running amok - report,  1/Dec/06
Government outlines new AIDS strategy,  1/Dec/06
'AIDS' death certificate causes a stir,  29/Nov/06
· AIDS Media Center
· The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis & Malaria
· International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS
· International HIV/AIDS Alliance

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