HIV/AIDS in Tanzania: Why Are Girls Still Being Buried Alive in Muslim Communities? (Women Negotiating Personal Spaces)

Article excerpt

Muslims believe that Islam came as a mercy to humanity. It, allowed women in particular to enjoy higher status and more rights than they had in the early patriarchal societies. Parents were duty-bound to support and show kindness and justice to their daughters, and in some instances favour them. (1) This was revolutionary, as prior to Islam women suffered from different forms of gender violence, from the cradle to the grave. One particular cruel practice abolished with the advent of Islam was that of female infanticide or wa'd. (2) Or was it?

According to the State of the World's Population Report, human immunodeficiency virus or HIV is now the leading cause of deaths in Africa. Globally it is ranked 4th. Over 35 million men, women and children have HIV/AIDS. New infections are estimated at 5.4 million cases each year. Africa leads in new infection rates.

Yet, the Islamic community in Tanzania has remained quiet about the pandemic in their midst. Most Islamic institutions or organisations have no HIV/ AIDS programmes. Fewer still provide basic or spiritual services for those infected or affected by the virus. Among those affected are children orphaned by AIDS, some as young as 12 and having to care for siblings. The burden of looking after these children also falls on older citizens who have, moreover, lost means of familial support.

What are Muslims in Tanzania Doing to Support AIDS Orphans?

A survey of mosques in Dar es Salaam city revealed the absence of programmes for AIDS orphans. Children as young as nine have to fend for themselves, mostly by selling meat in front of bars and other places of adult entertainment. To make a sell they are sometimes subjected to dehumanising acts, often of a sexual nature. Without a system of social support, these children become vulnerable to contracting HIV.

The burden of HIV/ AIDS falls disproportionately on women. Increasingly, Muslim women find they have to take measures to address the effects of HIV/ AIDS in their communities. One group has put up the Zainab Widows Foundation to assist widows, some of whom have lost their husbands to HIV/AIDS. The family is assisted with basic necessities, school fees and livelihood training to help them become self-sufficient. However, this assistance is not regular as the foundation lacks a regular source of support.

How can one Characterise Muslim Attitudes to HIV/AIDS?

There is an overwhelming perception among the Muslim community that HIV/AIDS affects sexually permissive, immoral individuals--adulterers and fornicators. Thus most sheikhs spend much energy on aspects that touch minimally on central issues that cause HIV/AIDS infection and its spread. Very little is being done in terms of instituting measures that will help check the scourge in the community posing a real threat to Muslim women.

Accurate information about the disease is not available to believers to help them protect themselves from the scourge. The sole defence offered by the ulama (clerics) has been la takribu zinaa which admonishes against committing adultery. They have also been adamant against the distribution of condoms and life-skills education in school. Little attention is given to practices that encourage the spread of the virus. Such attitude has had devastating effects on the community. Young brides are particularly affected.

Why are we Still Burying Girls Alive?

Although most Muslims believe female infanticide is a thing of the past, it is still very much with us albeit in new forms. In this regard the practice of betrothal raises many issues. In Tanzania it is evident in the way marriages are contracted.

A girl and her parents are supposed to feel honoured if a man asks for her hand. It is not uncommon for men, having settled elsewhere, to order brides from their native community. It is also common for divorced or widowed men to be offered new, often very young, wives "to ease their loneliness. …