Living with HIV in Azerbaijan

تم النشر: 30 ديسمبر 2006 0:00 CET

Sabina Mahbubiiran

“People living with HIV are no different to anyone else,” says 36 year-old Adil Bagirov. “It could happen to anybody, unless they protect themselves. So when you discriminate against somebody, simply put yourself in their shoes.”

Adil is an active member of the Social Union to fight AIDS, a local non-governmental organization created in 2001 and officially registered in 2005. It aims to bring people living with HIV like Adil together, providing an opportunity for them to talk openly about their situation without fear or shame. Information and social, psychological and juridical supports are provided, and people become involved in educating others about HIV transmission and prevention.

The Azerbaijan Red Crescent has worked closely with this organization since 2005, in line with its HIV/AIDS and Humanitarian Values projects. The projects aim to reduce the spread of AIDS and change perceptions, attitudes and behaviour towards people living with HIV. As part of this, staff have established good contacts with other relevant organizations, such as UNAIDS and UNICEF.

According to official statistics, some 1,000 people in Azerbaijan are living with HIV. While this is less than in some other countries, the number of new infections is increasing at an alarming rate.

Adil has been living with HIV for six years. “People say men like me are ill with AIDS even though I am only HIV-positive,” he explains. “In this society, it is not really an accepted topic of conversation and when people do talk about it, they do so either with contempt or fear. Most people think HIV and AIDS affect only drug addicts, homosexuals and sex workers. This is mainly due to lack of awareness. I used to think like that.”

The Azerbaijan Red Crescent has been working to raise awareness of HIV and AIDS, particularly among young people, underlining the effect discrimination has on the lives of stigmatised people. Nearly 800 Red Crescent volunteers, including students, university students and sex workers from Baku and six regions, have been trained as peer educators.

To date, more than 60,000 people have been reached through seminars, meetings or campaigns. One such recent event, supported by the Social Union to fight AIDS, was a picnic in Ismayilli district, central Azerbaijan, under the theme ‘Let’s stop stigma and discrimination’. The picnic was organized with financial support from the Norwegian Red Cross and the International Federation.

Despite being highly educated, Adil’s life changed in 2000 when drug addiction resulted in a prison sentence and testing positive for HIV. It was only when he spoke to others in the same situation that he realized the implications of becoming infected with HIV. “I thought about suicide,” he says. “I also worried about my elderly parents. What would they do when they heard?”

In fact, Adil was warmly accepted in his family, although they didn’t talk about the virus. “But I can’t avoid thinking about it,” he says. “Not so much for myself but because of other people. I don’t want others to be infected through lack of awareness. I explain to people how to protect themselves and advise them never to try drugs.”

Adil read a lot about HIV and AIDS. “I learned about ARV-therapy, a treatment that stops the progress of the disease. I also learned that it is possible for a couple to have healthy children even if one of them is HIV-positive. This gives me hope and I want to share what I have learned.”

The main focus for Adil and his friends is on those who are at greatest risk.

They distribute syringes to injecting drug users and condoms to sex workers, as well as running seminars or simply talking informally with people. “Our main task is keeping those who are drawn into drugs or prostitution healthy,” he explains. “When people learn what we are doing, they are astonished that we are helping people who are usually held in contempt by society.”

The HIV/AIDS and Humanitarian Values projects are part of the Azerbaijan Red Crescent’s long-term strategy. Inviting people living with HIV to share their reality and knowledge is an important aspect of this, as is marking significant dates such as Commemoration Day for those who have died of AIDS and World AIDS Day. The main goal is to integrate people into society.

Red Crescent staff and volunteers have also had specific training to help them better understand the problems facing these marginalized groups.

“Our society is not yet ready to accept us but I hope there will come a time when I can talk openly,” says Adil. “We are forced to live a double life but we understand this is mostly due to ignorance. This is why we are trying to inform as many people as possible while also trying to help those affected.

“I am not afraid of the virus – I defeated it long ago through knowledge and information. Rather, I am afraid of other people’s indifference and ignorance. People have to accept us and stop avoiding us because the discrimination could kill us before the virus does while a change of attitude could give us life and hope.”