Magazine article New Internationalist

Tunisian Association against AIDS

Magazine article New Internationalist

Tunisian Association against AIDS

Article excerpt

In a small, unassuming building In a quleti Tunis, a group of young men busily discuss the day ahead. Some, standing by the open, sun-filled doorway, gesture animatedly, their arms flailing, their bodies shaking with laughter. Others sit hunched over steaming cups of coffee, chattering intently, their hushed voices barely audible above the din nearby. It is a relaxed atmosphere, one punctuated by the interchanging sounds of French and Arabic, a distinct cultural symbol of Tunisia's rich and vibrant history.

Such gatherings are commonplace at the Association Tunisienne de Lutte Contre le Sida (the Tunisian Association Against AIDS). The centre, supported by a range of international associations and NGOs, has been at the forefront of the campaign to increase HIV awareness in Tunisia.

'We have a system here where we meet every Sunday and talk about our plans for the week ahead,' says 18-year-old high-school student Adel*. a peer educator at the centre. 'We have many projects at the Association, such as those dealing with drugs and safe sex, most of which relate to increasing HIV awareness. This also means targeting specific communities, so we've focused on sex workers - both male and female - and the gay community.'

Such initiatives have meant that, as well as seeking to educate Tunisia's young people through the more traditional routes of school visits and leaflet drops at cafes and universities, the centre has been forced to adopt some highly unusual, imaginative strategies in their quest to gather and distribute crucial information on the virus which, according to UNAIDS, affects some 8,700 people in a population of over 10 million.

'We've taken our drive to educate to parks where we know men meet up for sex,' says Adel, who also points to the potential threat posed by Hepatitis C, a disease with similar modes of transmission to HIV. 'We've been there at 11pm, for example, with the intention of gathering information about their activities (and sexual behaviour). But can you imagine trying to question these men while they're there to engage in sex? It's not the easiest thing to do!'

Adel, himself gay, knows more than most about Tunisian attitudes towards homosexuality, a practice still illegal in the country and punishable by up to three years' imprisonment.

'It's not easy discussing things (like homosexuality),' says Adel, who, apart from confiding in those at the centre, is forced to hide his own sexuality, for fear of being subjected to homophobia. …

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