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KENYA: Muslim leaders champion HIV testing in marriage

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons
Muslim men are allowed to marry up to four wives
MOMBASA, 2 July 2010 (PlusNews) - Binti Omar waits anxiously for her HIV test in a tent erected as part of a testing drive being conducted by the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya (CIPK) in the coastal city of Mombasa; Omar is accompanied by her fiancé, Abubakar Ismael, and his two wives.

"I'm about to be part of Abu's larger family, so we found it necessary to come here and get ourselves tested so that we can plan our future much better," Omar said. "Life nowadays is so risky... It would be good for us all to get to know each other's HIV status."

Ismael and his family, as well as hundreds of other locals, are getting tested at the CIPK camps in response to calls by imams - Muslim scholars - in mosques in Kenya's largely Muslim Coast Province.

Outgoing Chief Kadhi Sheikh Ahmed Kassim recently led some imams and locals in getting tested for HIV. He noted that the camps, held with the joint US-Kenya government programme, AIDS Population and Health Integrated Assistance in Kenya's Coast Province, APHIA II, were meant to enlighten and encourage Muslim youths, couples and Kenyans in general on the importance of getting tested.

Muslim men are allowed four wives and the initiative is encouraging all spouses to get tested.

For many years, Muslim leaders in Kenya shied away from discussing HIV, especially in the mosques; more recently, however, they have joined the national prevention campaign, although many still reject some aspects of it, particularly the use of condoms.

The HIV prevalence in Coast Province is 7.9 percent, marginally higher than the national average of 7.4 percent. The 2007 Kenya AIDS Indicator Survey revealed that an estimated 44 percent of new HIV infections in Kenya occur among married or cohabiting couples.

Leading by example

"Many young couples have made it a habit of entering into sexual relations without knowing their partners' status, thus placing themselves at a very high risk of getting infected with HIV," Kassim told IRIN/PlusNews. "We decided to come out openly as members of the clergy and lead by example in getting tested."

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According to Sheikh Ali Idriss, chairman of the CIPK, some members of the local community believe getting tested is a sign of infidelity.

"Suspicion and stigma have always been rife among married couples whenever one of them suggests that they should know their HIV status," he said.

The hope is that the backing for the programme by influential imams will change such misconceptions.

Fighting stigma

According to Abshir Masoud, the project co-ordinator, counselling is central to the exercise, and reducing stigma is one of their key messages.

"People who [are] diagnosed with the virus have always been regarded as worthless, often victimized by their partners who later quietly apply for divorce," he said. "We wanted those who might have been infected or affected to know that testing HIV positive wasn't the end of the world."

Government officials are advising couples to be honest with each other about test results, but are also being cautious to encourage them to continue to treat HIV-positive spouses with love and respect.

"In order to reduce the possible spread of the infection, we encourage cohesion between the married couples," said Esther Getambo, provincial medical officer in charge of medical services.

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Theme(s): Arts/Culture - PlusNews, Education, Gender Issues, HIV/AIDS (PlusNews), PWAs/ASOs - PlusNews, Prevention - PlusNews, Stigma/Human Rights/Law - PlusNews,

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

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