The war on terror has heaped much negative attention on Pakistan's madrassahs. But two nongovernmental organizations view the network of religious schools as a potential partner in their effort to bring AIDS awareness and prevention to the country.
Contesting the prevalent perception of the epidemic as a Western evil, the NGOs have been working since last year to train clerics and students of madrassahs in an effort to lift the stigma of AIDS and educate them that the disease is not confined to drug users, prostitutes, and homosexuals. In Pakistan, 2,748 people are reported to be HIV positive, but the international health agencies say the number could be as high as 70,000 to 80,000.
Other efforts have been made to involve religious leaders in Muslim countries like Iran, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia. But project officials say that their work in the madrassah network is the first of its kind in the Muslim World and could prove a model for other countries with large networks of Islamic schools.
"Our experience with the madrassahs is difficult but very productive. [Clerics] now talk about AIDS and are willing to spread the message," says Faisal Shafiq, an official with Amal, a health and education NGO based in Islamabad. "We have to make compromises on sensitive religious issue like the use of condoms. But ... we believe we are on the right track."
For their work in the madrassahs Amal and Catholic Relief Services (CRS) are following a pattern adopted in the worst-hit African countries like Uganda, which has a large number of Muslims. There, health workers significantly curbed the spread of HIV by enlisting community leaders and clergy to help spread the message - bolstered by Koranic verses and the Hadith - that caring for a patient is everybody's duty.
While working within conservative Islam has proved successful in raising HIV awareness and lifting stigmas, the discussion of prevention is limited by an aversion to sex education.
"The struggle has …