Health HIV and AIDS

Religious leaders combat HIV stigma

HARGEISA:(PlusNews) – When three attempts to cure Abdulhakim*, 42, of tuberculosis failed, the father of nine living in Hargeisa, capital of the self-declared republic of Somaliland in northwestern Somalia, took his doctor’s advice and tested for HIV – the result came back positive.

His family’s reaction was predictable: his brothers stopped grazing their goats and sheep alongside his, and many of his relatives wouldn’t touch him. “My wife and children are the only ones who have stood by my side,” he told IRIN/PlusNews.

Abdulhakim finds it hard to blame his relatives ‘€“ after all, until he was diagnosed he held similar misconceptions. “I thought AIDS was a disease for fornicators and immoral people, but I later got more educated.”

HIV-positive people in Somalia live with constant stigma, are ostracised and often even thrown out of their homes for fear that they might infect their neighbours.

Islamic religious leaders in Somaliland, some of whom have become involved in HIV prevention efforts, are now stepping in to persuade communities to treat people with HIV more humanely. Islam has an enormous influence on everyday life in Somalia, and religious leaders have the power to sway the population’s views on HIV/AIDS.

“As religious leaders we feel it is one of our main duties to be kind and helpful to the less fortunate members of society,” said Sheikh Mohamed Haji Mahamoud Hersi, who is part of an organisation of Muslim leaders that travels the country preaching. “Islam is about compassion, and people living with HIV deserve to be treated with kindness. The disease can happen to anyone.”

Hersi was one of the first religious leaders to counsel people living with HIV. “I tell them that they have to keep contact with God and to live a normal life,” he said. “It really keeps their spirits up; the day religious leaders visit is a very special day for them.”

Abdulhakim agreed. “A person needs different types of support – physical, economic, medical and also spiritual; when the Imams talk to us we feel more stable, like things will be okay,” he said.

The religious leaders hope to influence communities to become more tolerant of people living with HIV. “They really listen to us, so if the people see that we find no problem talking with their HIV-positive neighbours, then they may also accept them,” Hersi said.

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) and UNAIDS have been training religious leaders to teach local communities about behaviour change.

“Religious leaders need training so that they can say the right words, and avoid words that can cause additional problems to people living with HIV,” said Gulleid Osman, executive director of Talowadag, a coalition of NGOs that cares for people living with HIV.

Osman said most religious leaders were coming round to the view that they should stand up for the rights of HIV-infected people. “We recently held a meeting with 24 religious leaders, and only one refused to be involved in counselling people living with HIV – he said it [HIV] was something for non-Muslims … but most of them no longer feel that way.”

UNDP is working with the Somaliland AIDS Commission, local NGOs and Muslim scholars to develop a strategy that formally establishes the role of religious leaders in the fight against AIDS, and to harmonise the messages they deliver.

*Not his real name

This feature is used with permission from IRIN/

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