There is a concept here in Jordan – like many places – that HIV/AIDS is only contracted through sexual contact. It is thought that people with HIV/AIDS must have it because they engaged in an encounter considered immoral by the majority of Jordanian society – either adulterous or homosexual. If a person abstained until marriage, and then only had sexual experiences with their spouse, there should be no chance of infection, right? (Wrong, in case you’re wondering.) So unless you’ve cheated on your wife or husband, there is no reason to get tested. So the thinking goes. (On the flip side, some believe you can get HIV/AIDS from shaking hands with someone who has it. These two misconceptions seem to live side-by-side, even within the same person.)
This doesn’t take into account infection during birth, from unsanitary medical or dentistry equipment (as my friends tell me is prevalent here), or from untested blood transfusions. Similarly, it doesn’t account for faithful people who contract AIDS because their spouse has been infected – whether through sexual acts or not. All of these are “blame-free” ways of contracting HIV/AIDS, yet that’s not what comes to mind – for Jordanians and probably for Americans, too.
In Jordan, it is such a taboo to have HIV/AIDS, that if you reveal you have the disease, you can be fired from your job, disowned from your family, and rejected by all your friends. This prevents people from agreeing to be testing, or revealing their positive results to anyone – including their spouses.
Part of the problem here is not just the social taboo against testing, but the cultural values of doing things the traditional way. I was told some doctors and dentists don’t believe in blood borne diseases like HIV/AIDS (I can’t imagine where they are getting their degrees!) so don’t sanitize their tools. No one in the old days sanitized tools, and everyone was fine then! So convincing these caregivers to change their ways is one of the steps.
The idea that HIV/AIDS is contracted only from men (meaning women can get it from their husbands, and men get it from other men) appears common here. Homosexuality is barred in the Islamic faith, and so some local leaders say HIV/AIDS is Allah’s way of punishing the gays. Obviously, as not every person who engages in same-sex activity has AIDS, it seems that it’s not God’s punishment after all. (Unless you believe in an unfair God, I suppose, which doesn’t seem to be the base of Islam.) Also, who could blame an infant for having HIV/AIDS? The argument just doesn’t make sense to those who understand how the disease is spread. (And – to be clear – not all Muslims are uneducated about HIV/AIDS. However, some uneducated people use their faith as the reason for their beliefs. Much like some Christians do in the States about many issues.)
Also, because it’s seen as a homosexuality punishment, it can be hard for AIDS education projects to find funding. Local businesses and organizations don’t want to get involved in funding HIV/AIDS education and prevention because they believe it will be seen as condoning homosexuality.This would hurt their reputation and sales in a community forbidding homosexuality.
In short, contracting HIV/AIDS is almost seen as “it-serves-you-right”.
The truly unfortunate part is HIV/AIDS is 100% preventable. If the doctors and dentists cleaned their tools, people protected themselves during sex, needles were not shared between people, mothers were tested for HIV/AIDS during pregnancy, or other simple precautions were taken, the rate of infection would plummet. But because of community ignorance and cultural taboos, the rate is rising.
However horrifying this looks on paper, I want to take a step back here and look at my own country, the USA. I’m an honors student and my undergraduate honors research is on sexually transmitted infections, so taboos around STIs are incredibly fascinating to me.
In the States, we have numerous body-fluid borne infections – syphilis, chlamydia, HPV, herpes, etc. – most of them curable. The tests are cheap (or even free at some clinics) and so are the treatments (again, sometimes free). In fact, all of the government agencies dealing with reproductive and sexual health recommend all sexually active people be tested for infections at least once every six months, and between each new partner.
Yet to say you have ever had chlamydia or syphilis (both curable with antibiotics) is greatly shameful. There’s an idea in the States that if you were not promiscuous and you did all of the “right” things, you would never have a chance at catching a sexually transmitted infection. “Good” girls don’t catch chlamydia – only “bad” girls do.
In fact, I spoke to a sexual health representative at a recent health fair in my town, and she told me I was the first person to approach her table in hours – despite hundreds of free condoms piled on the table and boatloads of information on health. She said it was far from unusual – young people don’t want to be seen near a table with info on STIs because their peers may assume they are promiscuous or don’t practice safe sex.
I believe this is ludicrous. I firmly believe every man and woman – no matter what their orientation, number of notches on their bedpost, or regular protection habits – needs to be regularly tested (and treated, when needed) for sexually transmitted infections. Condoms don’t protect against every STI – and even for the ones they do protect, condoms break or fail sometimes.
Believing that only “bad” people get HIV/AIDS – or any STI – is like saying only bad people get the flu. It could happen to anyone – and those people should not be shamed into feeling like they are worth any less because they care about their health and the health of their partners. You would never scoff at someone with the flu and tell them they should have stayed out of elevators – why treat other infections any differently?
While the issue is definitely more extreme in Amman, it’s also interesting to see the parallels we have in the States. Definite food for thought.
PS – if you haven’t been tested in the past six months, please click here to search for a local testing center. It doesn’t matter what your age – even senior citizens can contract an STI.