Religious leader takes the lead in AIDS awareness
By Su-May Tan and Indra Nadchatram
ARAU, PERLIS, December 2007 – On a sunny Saturday morning in the Mata Ayer District, children and their families gathered together with religious leaders at Oran Mosque (Masjid Oran) in what looked like a typical family day. But with ‘HIV awareness and prevention’ banners flying proudly in the background, it was obvious that this was no ordinary weekend carnival.
While Malaysia’s HIV epidemic is largely dominated by male injecting drug users, there is concern over the rise in heterosexual transmissions in the country, from 4.9 percent in 1990 to 27 percent in 2006. In Perlis, most of this sexual transmission is happening in the small and marginalised fishing communities, with the proximity of the Thailand border adding another dimension to the problem.
Imam Ya’ Ali (63), religious head of Oran Mosque has decided not to waste another second to take action to protect his community from this incurable disease. A participant of a Ministry of Health and UNICEF seminar in June for leaders of the Muslim faith, the simple and dignified Imam is the first to put the seminar’s pioneering plans into action.
Teaching HIV through Islam
“We can use religion to inspire other community leaders to support HIV education,” he said. “Islam can be a platform to educate both parents and young people about health risks associated to certain behaviours”. The result is the Oran Mosque AIDS Awareness Program held in collaboration with the Perlis Health Department and Malaysia’s Islamic Development Department (Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia—JAKIM) and supported by Manchester United F.C. through the “United for UNICEF” partnership.
With gritty determination to back him up, the resolute Imam Ya’ Ali successfully mobilised some fifty imams from across Perlis to participate in the Mosque’s two-day Workshop. Amongst others, religious leaders were given the opportunity to learn about HIV and AIDS as well as about actions that can protect their community from the disease and its stigma.
While in the past, religious leaders advocated abstinence and called upon the ‘Fear of God’ and doctors focused on treatment and trying to “repair” the situation, today, the Imam expressed his hopes that “the combination of these two institutions” will help protect the state’s youth from HIV.
“Prevention and treatment are both important. We cannot do one and not the other,” stated Imam Ya’ Ali while making a commitment for his mosque to continue working with the state’s Health Department to tackle HIV in the community.
A sense of belonging for youth
Not forgetting his commitment to children and young people, Imam Ya’ Ali or Pak Imam (Uncle Imam) as he is popularly known to his youthful followers, also ensured a series of fun yet educational activities during the weekend to complement the Religious Leaders Workshop.
More than 150 families took part in the Oran Mosque AIDS Awareness Program and had the opportunity to learn more about HIV through lectures and health screenings for parents, the Anti-Narcotics Department and PROSTAR educational booths for teens and colouring contests for children.
“We want to create an environment and feeling of belonging that the youth will like. We want them to bring themselves closer to the mosque and this can then help mold their social behaviour.” The Imam points out however that young people who participate in the activities are not reprimanded but exposed to information and risks they need to be aware of.
In support of youth centres
The mosque’s HIV program is timely and will complement plans by the Government and UNICEF to introduce a PROSTAR Youth Centre in Perlis to deliver HIV and AIDS education both to in- and out-of-school youth. Based on the Kedah model, the Centre will serve as a safe place for children and teens to spend time, surf the net, meet their peers and obtain support and information on HIV and AIDS – without being condemned.
Lauding the Youth Centre initiative, Imam Ya’ Ali believes that the awareness program by his mosque is an important step in the right direction to mobilise support from community leaders.
“You need to publicise such a program and garner support from religious leaders and the community before making it a reality,” he said. “Only then can you ensure it’s success!”
The Perlis Health Department’s Director Dr. Mahani Yusof wholeheartedly agrees. “Because religious leaders are so respected in society, their support is critical for any such centre to be a success.”
“I think it is good that we use Islam to teach about HIV. There are some quarters who may resist. But when they understand why we are doing this, they will provide support,” adds Imam Ya’ Ali who was already in the habit of nudging along, if not championing the AIDS cause .
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