Bahrain: Ignorance around HIV/AIDS


Umbassil* is unlike other engaged women. Instead of planning her wedding she is wondering where she will have her baby. She is not pregnant but she knows that Bahrain's maternity hospitals will not admit her because she is HIV positive. The 26 year old who refuses to allow HIV to stop her from living her life to the fullest, is bothered by the prospect of being forced to deliver her baby in a country other than her own. "I have come to terms with artificial insemination and caesarean section (C-section) to protect my future husband and baby from contracting the virus, but I cannot accept (that I have) to deliver far away from my country and family members," she told IPS. 

Umbassil contracted the virus a few months ago from her previous fiancée who initiated unprotected sex. The two were married according to Muta'a or the temporary marriage custom prevalent in many Arab countries, which does not have legal sanction but is socially accepted.

She discovered her HIV status only after she underwent an HIV/AIDS test, which is a compulsory procedure for the government to acknowledge a marriage.

"It (sex without condoms) is a selfish act by most infected husbands who don't consider the health and well-being of their wives," comments Dr Somaya Al Jowder, director of the National Programme of the Sexually Transmitted Diseases. All Bahraini citizens infected with HIV are treated free under the government-run programme.

A total of 42 women like Umbassil have tested positive in Bahrain after unprotected sex with their infected fiancées or husbands.

Unfortunately, says Al Jowder, most infected people here do not disclose their HIV/AIDS status for fear of rejection.

In Bahrain, there is a lot of ignorance around the disease, even among health professionals, she told IPS. Doctors refuse to do an invasive C-section for HIV positive women, even though it reduces the risk of their babies contracting the virus. But hospitals do admit them for normal deliveries.

Infected Bahraini women face far more discrimination than the men who are responsible for bringing HIV into homes in this patriarchal society.

"There are 180 living HIV/AIDS patients, including 42 women, and they are few compared with Bahrain's population that exceeded 1 million at the end of 2008. Most of the women contracted the virus through sexual relations mainly with their infected husbands," Al Jowder said in an interview.

"We advice the females to not conceive and tell her about the best family planning methods, but if they insist, then we monitor their pregnancies and put them on medication (AZT) to save the babies," she explains. Pregnant women are prescribed the drug, which is administered free for all Bahraini citizens, from the fourth month of pregnancy.

HIV positive mothers delivered more than 10 healthy babies naturally in the last 20 years. In five cases the women were not on AZT. The drug reduces to 2 percent the chances of babies contracting the infection from their mothers.

Umbassil has been told that the best maternity facilities for HIV infected pregnant women are available in Egypt and Lebanon. But she is worried about how she and her fiancée would be able to afford the high cost of treatment.

So far, she has kept her HIV status a secret from everybody except her current fiancée and therapy and medical groups. "It is hard for me to hide such a horrible fact, but I have no option as my in-laws might force my fiancée to dump me," she says.

Fear of social prejudice has forced Umali, an AIDS activist "outside my country" from publicising her 15-year-old HIV status. She has not told her friends or relatives in case they refuse to let her into their homes.

Her husband, a reformed drug addict who campaigns, like her, for Bahrain's HIV/AIDS community in international fora, infected her.

"I'm an AIDS-fighting activist outside my country as there I feel free to fight for my right and defend HIV/AIDS patients. At home I have to put up with maltreatment and ignorance," says Umali.

She says she is very close to her sisters "but they don't eat anything I make or from my dishes for fear of infection," she confides. "It hurts when the people dearest to you don't accept a glass of water from you."

Social prejudice is not the only problem for Shafiqa who got the virus from her late husband 14 years ago. The lack of sensitivity from people who should know better bothers her more, she says, giving the example of a laboratory where she goes for a blood test regularly.

"We have to check the level of the virus in our blood regularly, so many lab specialists refuse to take our blood because we are HIV/AIDS patients, although they are wearing gloves all the times," she told IPS.

Shafiqa says that if medical professionals are unaware that HIV/AIDS patients are more at risk from infections contracted from so-called normal people because of their weak immune systems, how can ordinary people know any better.

The Bahrain government, through the National Programme of the Sexually Transmitted Diseases, is planning to draft a law to protect the rights of HIV/ AIDS patients, including women, and eliminate discrimination.

*All names used are pseudonyms to protect the women interviewed. (END/2009)