home Africa, Family, Society, Women “I Don’t”: arranged marriages for HIV-positive couples in Nigeria

“I Don’t”: arranged marriages for HIV-positive couples in Nigeria

On paper, the goal might seem admirable enough: promote the destigmatization of HIV-positive individuals while preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS.

A government-sponsored agency in Bauchi, Nigeria has a new plan for preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS among the northern state’s population. Eventually, the program may prove successful enough to go into effect across other agencies within the nation. Campaigns which bring attention to the disease are critical: in a country of 148 million, approximately 3.1 percent of the population has tested positive HIV/AIDS. Recent U.N. reports indicate that Nigeria has the world’s third largest HIV-positive population.

Not surprisingly, the agency’s scapegoat is a woefully miscast culprit. Single men and women, coming to the agency’s doors as patients in treatment for HIV/AIDS, are viewed as the primary spreaders of the virus. As a result, the Bauchi Agency for the Control of HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, Leprosy and Malaria (BACATMA) has cast itself as matchmaker for HIV-positive couples. Heterosexual partners are encouraged to meet and mingle with the intent of proposing. To date, 110 marriages have taken place as a result of pre-marital counseling sessions hosted by BACATMA. The agency also provides money toward a dowry and finances wedding ceremonies for couples introduced by their agency.

The underlying assumption, after all, is that HIV-positive singles should only engage in romantic relationships leading to marriage with HIV-positive members of the opposite sex. (Queer couples need not apply for marriage licenses at this agency.) Of course, many couples exist in which one partner is HIV-positive, while the other tests HIV-negative. These couples share just as much intimacy, bodily responsibility, and awareness as couples in which both partners are either HIV-positive or HIV-negative. Yet the agency claims that many who come to its doors are rejected by their peers and unable to find a suitable partner.

Matrimony is hardly a solution for Nigeria’s long-term campaign plans for prevention and awareness. Evidence for high counts of rape and sexual slavery in Nigeria was reported by Amnesty International in 2006. Their report, “Nigeria: Rape – The Silent Weapon,” notes that Nigerian police and security forces:

“intimidate communities in the Niger Delta… rape is used by the police as a means of torture to extract confessions from suspects in custody… women and girls rarely seek prosecution for fear of intimidation by the police and rejection by their families and community. When they do, widespread failures throughout the judicial system result in only an estimated 10% of cases ever being successfully prosecuted.” These instances of rape and sexual assault contribute to the spread of HIV/AIDS, yet BACTMA falsely assumes that married couples will have a degree of social protection against rape crimes.

BACTMA may claim that these matches are intended to function as more than mere state-sanctioned quarantines, but such unions hardly address the real social problems faced by those living with HIV/AIDS in Nigeria today. Those who are open about their positive-status are shunned by the communities in which they were raised. Ostracized by family and friends, many are forced away from their jobs and may prove unable to secure housing. Yet, by refusing to address the stigmatization and discrimination imposed on those living with an HIV-positive status, the agency affirms prejudice from the existing social pecking order which shuns those who disclose their medical status.

This is not the agency’s first attempt at policing sexuality under the guise of public health and disease prevention. Last October, BACATMA’s chairman, Dr. Sulaiman Muhammad, tried to initiate his marriage program among sex workers living in Bauchi. Muhammad claimed that he and the Nigerian State Commission would “crack down on unrepentant commercial sex workers who have tested positive to the HIV virus but continue to spread it… those who repent would be assisted with means of sustenance.”

Although prostitution remains illegal in Nigeria, sex workers continue to practice their trades in an effort to maintain economic security. Their persecution at the hands of a state-sponsored health agency is particularly troubling, as the population of sex workers in Nigeria remains highly vulnerable to contracting HIV/AIDS, even as they are held responsible for the high rates of infection which pass from carrier to carrier.

The means of spreading HIV/AIDS can be found in more ways than heterosexual couplings. Blood transfusions, the sharing of intravenous drugs and needles, and other blood-borne pathogens contribute to the rapid increase of HIV/AIDS in Nigeria. Promoting marriages among couples in which both partners test positive may seem like a generous gesture on the part of the agency, yet it reflects troubling social norms of exclusion for those coping with the disease. BACATMA’s time, money, and resources would be better used in programs which promote information and awareness, rather than marriage, as prevention against further increases in the spread of HIV/AIDS in Nigeria today.

5 thoughts on ““I Don’t”: arranged marriages for HIV-positive couples in Nigeria

  1. I had no idea! Thanks for shedding some light on this. I applaud them for at least trying, wish more were done in this country on that subject, but I agree that it’s probably time to go back to the drawing board! At the very least further effort in education and prevention would be great.

  2. This is just reflective of how singles are demonized compared to marrieds– The myth of matrimania (“marriage conquers all!”) is so powerful that Nigeria would rather attack its AIDs problem by pairing up those supposedly wanton singles than by rounding up the rapists and drug addicts. Unfortunately this marriage worship is not unique to Nigeria. Though I must say, I just read that Nigeria is also a place where single women can only adopt girls and single men can only adopt boys. I’m sure there are reasons for this, but it seems superficial and silly to me. But at least there singles *can* adopt–unlike other places.

    Christina

  3. Good attempt BACATMA! I beleive none of these people (should i call them social activitist or matriphobics?) is living positively with HIV, has ever visited Nigeria or has worked closely with PLWHA in the African context and have a glimpse of their needs and the trauma they go through living singly. Poverty, illiteracy, lack of social safety net, stigma and discrimination are common. Single women, divorced or widowed, are left socially unprotected, intimidated and exploited, the community taking undue advantage of their low economic status and in most instances their low literacy level. The commentators have not gotten the fact right or are deliberately being economical with it. Government is not forcing any body to get married on account of his HIV status. It is a democratic government that respect and guarantees the rights of its citizens and up holds their moral values. It merely ENCOURAGES people (irrespective of their HIV status)to get married. Nobody forces anybody to marry anybody! They are adults! Helping them to get married not only provide them with security, it also guarantees their right to procreation like any other person (what is PMTCT all about any way?). Now that people are coming out to access treatment, let us start thinking beyond keeping them isolated and single for life. You can not imagine how it feels to be well again, psychologically and physically, after being down with AIDS, courtesy of ARVs. The situation has normalized and we must move ahead. Kudos Bauchi State Government!

  4. “Poverty, illiteracy, lack of social safety net, stigma and discrimination are common.” Those issues need to be addressed, not covered over with the bandaid of marriage. Steps should be taken so that there *is* no trauma to living singly, rather than encouraging single people to get married.

    Christina

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