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.