HIV/AIDS, Stigma & Religion
Last week's 2nd International Muslim Leaders' Consultation (IMLC) on HIV/AIDS (19th - 23rd May, 2003) proved to be a real eye-opener. When asked what does Islam have to do with HIV/AIDS, the question broadly is, what does religion have to do with a pandemic that was killing millions of people worldwide?
From the Consultation, it was apparent that although everyone knew of HIV/AIDS, not many were intimately acquainted with the issue apart from the fact that it had something to do with drug addicts, homosexuals and condoms. Not many were even aware that HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is different from AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, triggered by the HIV virus when opportunistic viruses attack the body's weakened state), and that an HIV-positive person may not necessarily have AIDS until some years later. Few were also conscious of the fact that although there is currently no cure for the virus, with proper treatment, a person with HIV can conduct his/her daily life and activities normally much like a person with diabetes or heart disease who takes regular medication for the condition.
Despite these gaps in knowledge, we are quick to dish out value judgements, mark our distance and state our invincibility through identification of methods of transmission: namely, through the transmission of bodily fluids like blood, semen and vaginal fluid, most commonly associated with sharing of syringes and unsafe sex. These activities are mainly perceived to be the activity of drug addicts and those with deviant sexual practices including having multiple sex partners, "immoral" behaviour that does not comply with our religious beliefs or lifestyle. So why should you be concerned since you are neither? Isn't prevention often touted to be better than cure?
Consider the numbers. Currently there are an estimated 42 million people worldwide who are HIV positive, with a total of 5 million new infections and 3.1 million deaths in 2002 alone. Out of that, the figures for children under 15 years of age are 3.2 million, 800,000 and 610,000 respectively. Last year, according to UNAIDS, for the first time infected women outnumbered men and 80% of these women are monogamous and have only ever had sex with their husbands. How do these figures and facts now abide by your assumptions about the disease?
Now think about your response. When confronted by someone who is HIV positive, what would you do? Would you click your tongue in sympathy then shrink away with paranoia, making sure you have absolutely no bodily contact with the person living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA)? What are your thoughts about the person? Would you wonder how s/he contracted it? Would you think if s/he were gay, slept around, drug abuser or somehow deserved it? What are your prejudices?
Do you believe yourself to be invincible from the disease? There was a poster at the 2nd IMLC which demonstrated clearly how HIV/AIDS does not discriminate: "Jeannie slept with Ben who slept with Marianne who slept with Iskandar who slept with Aishah who slept with Muthu who slept with Natasha...(and so on) who slept with Mike who has AIDS." How do you know if your current partner is faithful, or that his previous sexual relations were free from the virus? Even if you are suspicious, how comfortable are you in talking about condoms and sex with your partner without fear of being morally judged as being "loose"?
More importantly, if you were to contract HIV/AIDS, no matter how it happened, how would you like to be treated?
The youth caucus at the IMLC presented an interesting video that voiced the concerns of the younger people. At the end of the video, there was a message that said clearly: HIV/AIDS does not kill, discrimination does. How? Through the stigma and discrimination that surrounds the disease, that only the immoral or the social rejects are vulnerable to it. This social judgement creates so much fear that firstly even testing for the virus can be perceived as tantamount to admission of immorality. From this denial, transmission will be perpetuated through continuation of current practices that will expose others to the virus. Secondly, if tested positive, PLWHA find that they have very little support from their families or friends or colleagues to seek further information, medical treatment or for emotional encouragement. The stigma and discrimination surrounding HIV/AIDS on its own can kill through the silence it induces.
Now ask yourself, what are you doing to contribute to the 42 million HIV positive people not coming out to get accurate information and adequate treatment through the shame and prejudice they face induced by your half-knowledge or deliberate ignorance?
This is where religion can play a pivotal role. Every major religion - in the instance of the 2nd IMLC, Islam - teaches tolerance, respect and dignity. Condemnation and judgement should be left to a higher authority, and not to us as mere mortals. Who can say one is better than the other, especially in the instance where it is a disease that does not discriminate? Religion also edifies care and compassion. What these ethics essentially tell us as good Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus or human beings is to extend a non-judgemental, respectful concern and kindness to those who are less fortunate than us. This includes PLWHA who are more often than not left in a vulnerable position because they are marginalised and prejudiced against. Religion can be used by certain individuals for their own purposes to place themselves in a higher position and authority than others through self-appointed pious condemnation, or it can be used as a guiding principle to treat others with acceptance, respect and love. How would you use your religious values and ethics when it comes to HIV/AIDS? Would you continue to stand aloof and continue to issue moral judgements that will ultimately leave you vulnerable, or will you stop the fear by learning more, speaking out against discrimination and opening your arms to caring?
1 June 2003
Fortnightly Column by WAO on Sunday Mail (Reprinted with permission from Sunday Mail)