In-depth: Crime and punishment: Criminalisation and HIV

NIGERIA: "With this HIV test, I thee wed"

Photo: IRIN
"No test no marriage" (file photo)
LAGOS, 20 November 2008 (PlusNews) - Getting married in Nigeria often requires more than just the bride and groom turning up at the altar, and having witnesses and wedding rings present: many Christian churches also require an HIV test certificate.

It may not seem particularly compassionate, but in an era when sex before marriage is the norm, several orthodox and some pentecostal churches are promoting mandatory testing as clear-eyed thinking.

The intention is to prevent HIV infection, rather than punish those living with the virus, with the policy couched in the language of "informed choice" for couples about to make what is assumed to be a life-long commitment.

The Baptist church has been at the forefront of the "no test, no marriage" rule, and Daniel Gbadero, the National Coordinator of the Baptist Awareness Against AIDS Programme, is its chief proponent.

"We ask [couples to do an HIV test] about nine months or one year before the wedding to know the status of the person they want to marry. If one of them is positive, we ask them if they still want to go ahead, and over 99 percent turn back. Whichever way you look at it, it prevents the spread of the virus," Gbadero told IRIN/PlusNews.

"For those couples who both are positive, we have no hesitation in marrying them: we just don't want both people to ... [end up being] infected. That is the only way we can limit the spread of the virus to those who are already infected."

That uncomplicated reasoning has some public support, even among those involved in AIDS advocacy. Zubairu Gambo, leader of the Alese Society Against HIV/AIDS, a community-based group in oil-rich southern Rivers State, which works mainly with truck drivers hauling fuel to the predominantly Muslim north, would also like Muslim religious leaders to embrace the idea of HIV testing before marriage.

Gambo, a Muslim, believes compulsory pre-marital testing would help tackle the low levels of AIDS awareness in the northern states, a problem he believes is responsible for the relatively high HIV prevalence there.

"You don't discuss sex before marriage in the north - or even when you are married - while in the south you do," he said. "In the north you have arranged marriages; in the south there's HIV testing before marriage."

Would you take an HIV test in order to get married? Click here to read what others think 
Nigeria has an overall HIV prevalence of 4.4 percent, and its 140 million people are roughly evenly split between Muslims and Christians.

Grace Anya works with Fortress 4 Women, a women's rights NGO in the northern city of Kano. She encourages people to know their status, and to take advantage of the rollout of antiretroviral (ARV) drugs, but condemns compulsory testing and fears the potential misuse of church influence. "They can force you to go for an HIV test, even against your wishes, and there is no guarantee those results will stay confidential," she said.

"Malaria and TB can also be terminal, but do people test for that before they marry? People still get scared when you say 'HIV'; people feel you've been promiscuous. That stigma is still there ... a little bit more enlightening needs to happen," Anya said.

Pastor Solomon Olu Ajisafe of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, commented: "If you are a member ... you know what [the rules are], so if you want to marry [without taking an HIV test], marry outside the church. But if you marry within the ... church, you must subject yourselves to these rules. So I don't think it is an infringement on the rights of anybody. Like any organisation, the church has its rules."

The Nigerian authorities are publicly opposed to compulsory testing, and a new anti-stigma bill to be tabled in the national assembly will make it illegal. "Any form of testing which is not voluntary and confidential is unacceptable. Pre-marriage, pre-employment – we condemn all of them," Pastor Pat Matemilola, national coordinator of the Network of People Living With HIV/AIDS in Nigeria, told IRIN/PlusNews.

"In principal, we don't want an HIV-negative person to become infected [by their spouse], but what we're saying is that there are ways a person can protect themselves."

He believes that church leaders across denominations are beginning to listen, and that part of the reason is the increasing availability of ARVs, which help prolong the lives of those who are HIV-positive, but acknowledges that individual parish priests and local pastors may take additional convincing.

"If I look back over the last five years, we've come a long way; things have really improved. But Nigeria is a big country - in the rural areas there is still a lot of stigma, a lot of discrimination. Even if we pass the [anti-stigma] law, it will take a long time before it reaches the nooks and crannies of the country."

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