Monday, March 09, 2009



Ten years ago, Fariah Said would have earned the wrath of her community. Then, Aids was not discussed among Muslim women. When it cropped up the tones were hushed.

"Infection was considered a result of adultery and women who got the virus were stigmatised. There were Aids related deaths but the subject was never discussed," says Fariah who holds a diploma in management.

"I saw many women die, some of whom were friends. This bothered me very much, because I knew the price that would be paid for the silence," she says.

In 2006, she created a group, Assalam Muslim Women Forum (AMWF), in Kisumu-Kenya where she lives.

"It was a hard task to convince women, some of whom have been taught to never discuss their problems in public, to join the group," she says. It was even tougher considering many women feared stigma if it were found out they were infected.

"Most of them learnt their status during pregnancy," says Fariah.

Close to 200 Muslim women living with the virus from different parts of the country have found solace in AMWF. Although she is not infected, she shares in the plight of women with the virus. Initially, Fariah says she faced resistance, but infected women are opening up more in AMWF forums.

"Generally, Muslim women do seek to know their Aids status. The scourge is viewed as a sin. And those living with it are said to have sinned," she says. Fariah says with three other women co-directors, they started assisting women living in informal settlements of Kisumu. "Most of these women never knew about their status and could not access Anti-retroviral drugs(ARVs)," says Fariah.

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With their own saving they started income-generating activities for the women after convincing them to know their status.

"In Bandani and Kaloleni slums they started selling charcoal and chapati. We also trained them on home-based care.

Restored hope

Some of them were bed-ridden by then," says the 42-year-old woman. She says even after accessing ARVs in Government hospitals, the women lacked food supplements, which are a pre-requisite for the efficacy of the medicine.

Her organisation made the supplements available for the women.

One of AMWF beneficiaries, Asma Fwale, says after losing her husband three years ago, she lost hope. "But when a friend introduced me to Fariah, I found the strength to live. I now openly talk about my Aids status," says the mother of two. USAid supports the group in training, advocacy and administration.

Fariah also says support from Muslim Imams (Leaders) has boosted her work.


The name Habiba Hassan Abdillahi is raising eyebrows in North Eastern Province (NEP).
And no, it is not because she is a woman trying to step into traditional male roles in a conservative society; Ms Abdillahi is one of only a handful of NEP residents who have gone public about their HIV/Aids status.

Born 27 years ago in Isiolo District, Abdillahi dropped out of primary school when she was 14-years-old to enter into an arranged marriage with her cousin. But the union did not last, and, in 2000, the couple divorced. But luck was on her side and, the following year, she met and married the man of her dreams. Or so it seemed!

Abdillahi moved in with her new husband, who was then working in Garissa, where he was based. The couple had two children, a girl and a boy, who are seven and four-years-old respectively.

Straight into rejection
But Abdillahi was not prepared for the turn of events that took place in 2005. She vividly recalls specific dates and venues of the drama that unfolded that year. On February 25, her husband died hundreds of kilometres away at the Coast Provincial General Hospital, where he had been admitted. Due to his prolonged illness, he was not present during the birth of their second child in January.

On September 4, Abdillahi was diagnosed with HIV, the virus that causes Aids. Unknown to her, her late husband had tested positive in 2002, a fact that he did not disclose to her.

"Several months after the birth of my second born, I fell seriously ill. I had acute pneumonia, oral thrush, and diarrhoea. On further examination, I was found to have a CD4 count of four and was grossly underweight," recalls Abdillahi, who was admitted to the Garissa Provincial General Hospital.

She left the hospital after a week, something she dreaded because word had already spread to her family and friends that she was HIV-positive. Indeed, she walked straight into rejection. Apart from her brother-in-law and younger sister, no one else wanted to come near her.

Says Abdillahi: "My relatives believed that I was at death’s door or I would infect them with the virus."

After she was discharged from hospital, she was immediately put on antiretroviral drugs.
The hospital also gave her counselling and nutritional support. Within a month, her weight increased to 40kg.

Now Living fully

Her oral thrush also disappeared and she regained considerable physical energy.
It is at this point that Abdillahi decided she would live her life fully, even if it were only for the sake of her children.
Fortunately, her children are HIV-negative. She lives with her son, Mohamed Mohamud. Her daughter, Batran Mohamud, lives with her in-laws until Abdillahi is financially able to accommodate her.

She says she has since forgiven her husband for keeping his status a secret and infecting her.
When Garissa-based Organisation for People Affected by HIV/Aids (Opaha) approached her in October 2005, they found an enthusiastic potential member.

"Apart from receiving the material and moral support given by Opaha, I decided to go public and act as a testimony of someone living positively with HIV," states Abdillahi. She says she gained the courage to become an advocate after witnessing a similar trend in other parts of the country.
Opaha is a partner with the Aids, Population and Health Integrated Assistance Programme (APHIA II NEP).

Raising awareness

APHIA II NEP is a five-year project between the Government and USAid. It is implemented by Pathfinder International, IntraHealth International and Management Sciences for Health, under the Extending Service Delivery Project. As part of her advocacy work, Abdillahi has attended several events aimed at raising awareness on HIV and Aids in and out of NEP.

These include the Garissa Youth Forum, counselling and testing at Garissa Teachers College, and speaking at a women’s health forum in Ijara District.

She also gave media interviews to the BBC during the World Aids Day, last year.

She recently got married to a voluntary counselling and testing counsellor based at the Isiolo District Hospital. She met the man, who is also HIV-positive, at a HIV/Aids forum in Nairobi.
Abdillahi says they plan to have a baby soon, which will be made possible by the provision of prevention-of-mother-to-child-transmission services at the Garissa hospital, through the support of APHIA II NEP.

"A lot of HIV-positive people in NEP are suffering in silence, due to the high levels of stigma and discrimination. People do not want to be seen going for voluntary counselling and testing services, and even those who test positive fear visiting comprehensive care centres for ART drugs," Abdillahi says.

"As a woman who has dared to go public and is slowly gaining acceptance in such a conservative society, I believe the journey towards eliminating denial (about HIV/Aids) in NEP has finally started in earnest," says Abdillahi.