|© UNICEF video|
|Twenty-year-old Hoda Humoud is one of the young Omani women who staff a UNICEF-supported HIV/AIDS information hotline.|
By Lucy Ashton
MUSCAT, Oman, 14 November 2005 – It is 1984. Two sisters live with their family a few hours drive into the remote mountains west of the city of Muscat. The eldest sister is just five years old when her mother dies of an unknown cause. Shortly after, the girls are tested for a virus their family and most Omani doctors have yet to hear of: HIV. They both test positive.
Remarkably, 20 years later Raya and Lamia show no symptoms, nor do they take any medication.
“For our good health we thank God,” says Raya, the eldest. This is not to say their lives have been unaffected by the disease. The girls have faced rejection from their brothers and been shunned for marriage.
Raya is by far the more jovial and accepting of her position. Lamia is frustrated and angry. She sits, glowering at her hands from beneath her headscarf, and lets her sister tell their story.
Dealing with ostracism
Their mother contracted HIV from a blood transfusion in the early 1980s. Oman at that time was importing blood from Africa and Europe. The blood was not screened for HIV since no test had been developed.
Raya and Lamia are just two of the 909 confirmed cases of Omanis with HIV, though doctors specializing in the virus think there are a similar number of undiagnosed HIV carriers. In response to the disease, the government set up the National AIDS Prevention (NAP) programme in 1994. With assistance from UNICEF, it provides free HIV testing, medication, counselling and advice.
While medical and psychological support for HIV patients is available, Omani society has barely begun to discuss issues associated with the virus. To most Omanis, HIV/AIDS means certain and imminent death.
|Oman's National AIDS Prevention (NAP) programme and UNICEF have organized education campaigns for teenagers and have set up an HIV/AIDS information hotline.|
After their disease was confirmed, Raya and Lamia were ostracized by their family. Their step-brothers rejected them. “They thought us repulsive,” says Lamia bitterly. “And they refused to sit anywhere near us or share a meal.”
Thankfully, life outside their home continued as normal but only because the girls kept their infection a secret. Since the girls showed no signs of being ill, no one suspected or knew that they were HIV-positive.
Concern for family
“We attended school like all the other children. Our disease was never an issue,” says Raya.
When their schooling ended, they had to decide what to do. Most of their friends are married and have children, but for Raya and Lamia the options for marriage are few.
Both girls have been proposed to, but issues associated with their HIV status have prevented their marriage. Raya’s suitor broke off the engagement as soon as he heard she had the virus. And though Lamia’s suitor knew she was HIV+ when he asked for her hand, she refused fearing that any husband would use her HIV status as a tool for manipulation. “I didn’t want to become a slave,” she says.
To try and diminish the social stigma, NAP and UNICEF have organized some successful HIV/AIDS education campaigns for teenagers and have set up an information hotline that offers callers an anonymous opportunity to ask tough questions about HIV/AIDS, as well as arrange confidential counselling, testing and treatment.
For now, Raya is dealing better with the fact of being HIV-positive than is Lamia, but both are focusing on finding work. With a bed-ridden father, Raya is concerned about her clutch of younger half-brothers and sisters who need to be fed. The government has helped her to attend English and computer literacy courses. “I would really love to be an HIV counsellor, but I have been searching for any type of job for a year, with no luck.”
Thomas Nybo reports on the UNICEF-supported HIV/AIDS information hotline in Oman.
UNICEF Representative for the Gulf Countries June Kunugi talks about the HIV/AIDS situation in Oman
HIV/AIDS campaign links