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UNHCR Pakistan targets refugees, host community in HIV/AIDS campaign

UNHCR Pakistan targets refugees, host community in HIV/AIDS campaign

The refugee agency, together with UNAIDS and other partner agencies, recently held a three-day campaign in Quetta to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS among refugees, including street children, as well as Pakistani students and the general public.
15 December 2004
Afghan refugee Shapozmi delivering her speech at the HIV/AIDS awareness cultural show at a Quetta drop-in centre.

QUETTA, Pakistan, Dec 15 (UNHCR) - "I am Shapozmi. Today I am here to let you know about the incurable disease of AIDS," said a 12-year-old refugee girl in traditional Afghan dress.

"AIDS is a fatal illness. Globally 39.4 million people are HIV-positive or suffering from AIDS, and 14,000 people are being infected each day, more than half of them under 25 years of age," she told the audience at a cultural show in Quetta organised by UNHCR to mark World AIDS Day on December 1.

Shapozmi explained to fellow students, teachers and parents how HIV is spread and what steps are needed to prevent it from happening. "Please know that we can live and take care of people with AIDS," she said before stepping down to applause from the audience.

The Afghan refugee was part of the cultural show, "Street children at risk of HIV/AIDS", held at a drop-in centre run by a local non-governmental organisation in Quetta. This is one of two such centres to provide informal education to Afghan refugee children who earn a living on the streets, houses and shops to support their family. The children can drop into the centres at a time to their convenience, attend an hour-long class and receive a glass of milk and some bread afterwards.

On the occasion of World AIDS Day, the young refugees took the lead in all performances in the cultural show, presenting dances, songs and short dramas to raise awareness of the disease among refugees and their host communities.

The cultural show was just one event in a three-day HIV/AIDS awareness campaign in Quetta in early December. There was also an inter-college debate on whether or not "HIV/AIDS is a risk to community", in which college students discussed the dangers of keeping silent and letting the disease go unchecked.

A seminar was also held on this year's World AIDS Day theme, "Women, girls, HIV and AIDS". Experts from religious, health and social backgrounds presented papers on the greater risks that women and girls face from the disease.

Qari Mohammad Yaqoob, an Islamic scholar, said that Islam had, at no stage, denied equal rights between women and men. "Islam as a complete code of life provides all rights to women and girls to protect themselves from all threats, including the threat of being infected with a disease like HIV," he said. "Our society has to strive to protect the vulnerable in this sense and also should try to help those who already have the disease."

Hafiz Hamad Ullah, Minister for Health in Balochistan province, told seminar participants that his government was making all efforts to stop HIV from spreading in the province. "I appreciate the help extended by UNHCR and other organisations in helping to control HIV. I also want to convey the message that following Islamic ways of life is also a way to stop and prevent the disease from spreading," he said.

Dr. Benjamin Ugbe, UNHCR's health officer in Quetta, said that among uprooted populations, conflict, displacement, food security and poverty were factors that have the potential of making people more vulnerable to HIV transmission.

"But this does not necessarily translate into more HIV infections among uprooted people," he said. "Studies in more than 20 camps with over 800,000 refugees in four African countries show that refugees in three of the four countries have significantly lower HIV prevalence rates than surrounding host communities."

To strengthen its efforts to control HIV, UNHCR has signed a three-year agreement with the UN Programme on AIDS to work to prevent and control HIV among refugees in Pakistan. The refugee agency will work closely with UNAIDS to share information on HIV/AIDS and implement UN plans to combat the disease in refugee camps.

Participants at the HIV/AIDS seminar included Balochistan Health Minister Hafiz Hamad Ullah (centre).

UNHCR will provide protection and legal assistance to all refugees diagnosed with HIV/AIDS through its network of Advice and Legal Aid Centres in Pakistan run by NGOs. It will also provide financial support for the country's UNAIDS programme.

"There is a clear understanding that HIV/AIDS is an international phenomenon that threatens everyone," Guenet Guebre-Christos, UNHCR Representative in Pakistan, said at the signing ceremony with UNAIDS. "This is an example of close cooperation between UN agencies to maximise the use of resources and bring help to the largest possible number of people."

By Babar Baloch
UNHCR Pakistan