Seminar at Film Festival urges better understanding of HIV/AIDS in Egypt
Cairo, March 11, 2007: “Fear is the reason behind the spread of this disease. Let’s break this barrier of fear”.
This remark by actor Khaled Abol Naga set the tone for a seminar at the 17th Cairo International Film Festival for Children on the role of the media in shaping the perceptions and attitudes of young people towards HIV/AIDS.
Abol Naga – along with fellow actors Mahmoud Kabil (UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador), Amr Waked and Leila Elwy – were speakers at the seminar which was hosted by UNICEF as part of the Unite For Children, Unite Against AIDS and Hepatitis C campaign.
Addressing a largely youthful audience at the Cairo Opera House, UNICEF HIV/AIDS officer, Dr.Wessam El Beih, gave an overview of the epidemic worldwide. She pointed out that while the number of reported HIV cases in Egypt and the region remains low, the data shows that they are growing at a rapid rate.
A short animated film produced by children, capturing the thoughts and feelings of an Egyptian man living with HIV was screened. The film – produced as part of UNICEF’s SOTNA child media initiative – is an entry to the Film Festival. Child and youth members of the Khatwa group who produced the movie were present at the seminar.
The film’s director, Mohamed Shindy, reminded the audience of the recent death in Egypt of a mother of three. “It’s a shame to know that there are people here in Egypt living with HIV who die because of the poor standard of medical care available to them, not because of their illness.”
Several participants spoke of the need to spread greater understanding about HIV/AIDS in all levels of society.
“Unfortunately our people still suffer from complete ignorance on this issue,” said Mahmoud Kabil. “Our region has the world’s second fastest rate of growth in HIV infection, and yet our media is still in denial about the existence of the disease.”
Actress Leila Elwy focused on a similar theme: ”Seminars like this one should be held all over the country to raise people’s awareness,” she said.
The stigma still attached to people living with HIV was highlighted by actor Amr Wakid. “If we go back in time to when we first knew about the disease in the movies, the person infected by AIDS was portrayed as a criminal not as a person who needs care. This image will remain unless we change it.”
During the seminar, a range of comments were heard from participants.
Mostafa Kamal, from the Youth Association for Population and Development remarked that while it was true that ordinary people needed to be educated about AIDS, the same was true of many civil servants and civil society.
Dr Ragia el Gezawy from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights highlighted the stigma evident in media reports about individuals living with HIV. She said that newspaper articles habitually use terms such as “arrest”, “capture” and “horror”, the same terms normally seen in reports about criminal cases.
Haitham Nasef, a medical student from the University of Banha, spoke about the low standards of sex education in Egyptian society. He urged greater freedom for the media to address such issues.
UNICEF Egypt Deputy Representative, Hannan Sulieman, closed the event with a plea for action by young people. “We must change people’s attitudes towards this disease so that those who live with it have our empathy in the same way that people with cancer do. This is something that all our religions agree on.”
“One person can change the world,” Ms Sulieman concluded. “Why not let that person be you and me.”