August 5, 2009
AIDS activists in Mauritania say they must be content with delivering watered-down prevention messages in order to avoid creating offense in the highly conservative Muslim nation.
"By talking about condom use or safe sex openly, you are likely going to generate negative reactions even from moderate groups," said Malayaine Mohammed, director of Terra Vivante, a non-governmental organization. "So what we do here is to talk about those issues like abstinence and loyalty in marital relationships as part of our campaign efforts in order to win the support of the religious leaders."
"Some religious leaders still refer to us as infidels or non-believers who are being used by the West to fight Islam," said Corea Mint Sidi, who works with HIV-positive women.
An interview with religious leader Sheikh Abdoullah Ould Abdoullah confirmed this: "Muslim leaders in Mauritania will continue to be suspicious of the motives of Western-backed campaigners against HIV/AIDS, especially when they are promoting safe sex and condom use. Our religion forbids that. If they are concerned about HIV/AIDS, let them tell people to stop doing things that give them the virus."
This conservatism particularly affects migrants, chiefly black Africans seeking to set off for Europe from Mauritania's coast.
"Social taboos against sex outside marriage in Mauritania mean that condoms cannot be sold openly in shops and pharmacies," said Kwame Adaye, a migrant from Ghana. "They are instead handed out in secret by activists, and you have to be in this country for at least a few months to know who to talk to about condoms. This sometimes forces people into some risky behaviors like unprotected sex."
Stigma against HIV testing leads activists to believe the nation's true HIV rate is higher than 0.8 percent, the officially acknowledged adult prevalence rate.