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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”

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Muslim Women Preachers Plot Strategy on HIV/AIDS

Inter Press Service - Monday, July 8, 2002
Richel Dursin

JAKARTA (IPS) - It is mid-day and the Muslim women preachers at a seminar here on HIV/AIDS seemed ready for a break when one of them spoke into a microphone: "Men should also be given this kind of training because they are the ones buying sex when they could have it free at home."

All the women at the session at the Istqlal mosque, the biggest in South-east Asia, burst into laughter upon hearing Bau Masita's remarks but supported her plea.

The only man present at the seminar, a government official, looked embarrassed.

"Everywhere men are indifferent to HIV/AIDS, but HIV/AIDS is not a problem of women alone," argued Masita, a member of Nasyiatul Aisyiya, an independent women's organisation allied to Muhammadiyah, one of the largest Muslim groups in Indonesia

Alarmed by the increasing number of HIV/AIDS cases in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country, the two-day seminar in late June was organised by the Federation of Indonesian Muslim Women Organisations (BMOIW).

About 80 women preachers, known as 'mubalig', took part in the seminar, a first in Indonesia.

"We are worried about the current young generation because they are at risk of getting HIV/AIDS. Many of them are sexually active and injecting drug users," said Bareroch, chair of BMOIW, an umbrella group of 28 women's groups including Nasyiatul Aisyiya and Nahdlatul Ulama, the biggest Muslim group in the country.

Some 120,000 Indonesians, primarily in Jakarta, West Papua, East Java, Bali and Riau, have HIV, according to the health ministry, rising infection rates among injecting drug users, sex worker and blood donors.

The latest UNAIDS report, released in early July, lists Indonesia as "an example of how quickly an HIV/AIDS epidemic can spread" after more than a decade of negligible HIV prevalence.

At one drug treatment centre in Jakarta, HIV prevalence rose from 15.4 percent in 2000 to more than 40 percent by mid-2001.

"HIV/AIDS continues to spread throughout Indonesia at an alarming rate," said Bing Wibisono, a consultant at the World Health Organisation (WHO) office in the capital city Jakarta.

Given this picture, "it is important that we, preachers, have knowledge on HIV/AIDS because it is already spreading in our society We believe it is our obligation to warn the people, especially the youth, about HIV/AIDS," said Bareroch.

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"We think that women spiritual leaders would play a significant role in the fight against HIV/AIDS because they are directly facing the people and have followers. The people believe whatever they tell them because they are giving God's orders," said Hasnan Aziz, chairperson of Majelis Dakwah Islamiyah, one of the member groups of BMOIW.

Enlisting the support of Muslim leaders is backed by the Indonesian government. "By taking the initiative to fight HIV/AIDS, it is our hope that women can make a difference in this patriarchal society," State Minister for Women's Empowerment Sri Redjeki Sumaryoto told the seminar on Jun. 24.

As speakers from government offices lectured on HIV/AIDS, the women preachers listened attentively, jotted down notes and asked many questions.

"Where can we get leaflets on HIV/AIDS that we can give to our audience?" asked one 'mubalig'. "How should we counsel a person with HIV/AIDS?" another wanted to know. "What shall we do if one from our village is suffering from HIV/AIDS?" asked a third participant.

"Can the baby of a pregnant woman with HIV/AIDS get infected?" asked a 'mubalig', citing the case of a housewife who contracted HIV from her husband.

One study by a popular medical practitioner has revealed that 70 percent of women with HIV in Indonesia are "good housewives".

As in other societies, it is more acceptable for men to be promiscuous. At the seminar, many wives ask Muslim cleric Faisal Muhammad Ali Nurdin how to prevent their husbands from playing around. Nurdin candidly told them he has no real answer to that.

"Usually, it's not the fault of women if they get infected with HIV, but the fault of men," said Nurdin, one of the religious leaders brought into the HIV/AIDS campaign by the non-governmental Pelita Ilmu Foundation (YPI), which has brought different religious leaders into HIV/AIDS work.

Yet the stigma that women with HIV have to live with is heavy. For instance, women who have contracted HIV/AIDS are seen as "sinners" and prostitutes. "People think that women who got HIV/AIDS sold their bodies," added Bareroch.

Because of the special risks that HIV/AIDS brings to women, YPI programme coordinator Retno Windrati says women preachers are in a unique position to address women's concerns on HIV/AIDS.

"Men are not that eager to take part in anti-HIV/AIDS programmes. If they join, they just take lightly women's concerns on HIV/AIDS such as asking them to use condoms," Windrati says.

Often, women have little negotiating power in sex. Most religious leaders say the use of condoms condones promiscuity and early sexual activity, and it is not surprising that some often advise their comunities not to use them.

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Thus, Kaelany, a lecturer at the state-run University of Indonesia involved in HIV/AIDS work, says he prefers telling men to "be faithful" to their partners instead of asking them to use condoms.

In discussing HIV/AIDS, the 'mubalig' focus not only on coping with unequal gender relationships but on the need to protect families and children from the pandemic.

Majority of new HIV/AIDS infections in Indonesia are among young people between the ages of 20 and 24 and many of them, sometimes as young as 14, get the virus through sharing needles. At least 30 percent of some 4 million drug users in Jakarta are HIV-positive, says a local HIV/AIDS study group.

"First, we have to educate and protect our children from HIV/AIDS by using the love approach. Later on, our children can get involved in youth organisations and discuss HIV/AIDS with their peers," said one 'mubalig', Isna Syahadat.

"We'll form a network with other mothers. We'll organise an 'arisan' or a Koran recital and in that gathering we'll discuss issues on HIV/AIDS such as how to prevent it, discrimination and acceptance of people living with AIDS," said 45-year-old Lathifah Saipi.

"This seminar has served as an eye-opener for me, that in our preaching, we cannot stay put. We have to get out and look for those who are suffering," Saipi said.

Bareroch of BMOIW added: "We'll carry out the programme until the end of this year. If we feel that the result is not that good, we have to look for other ways." (END/IPS/AP/HE/HD/RD/AN/JS/02)