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Algerian women with HIV suffer 'double punishment'

09 July 2015, 18:58

Algiers - Like many women in Algeria infected by their husbands with HIV, 30-year-old Sihem is a victim twice over, living with her disease and suffering as a social outcast.

Infected by her husband at age 20, Sihem has spent a decade living with the stigma that comes with being infected with HIV in Algeria.

"I divorced and went off with HIV. My husband told everybody I had Aids," she said, misty eyed and her voice choking.

In the eyes of Algerian society, she must have been to blame for the marital breakdown, while her ex-husband remains "above suspicion," said Sihem, using a false name to tell her story.

Like in many other conservative Muslim countries, in Algeria a woman with HIV is considered to have brought shame and dishonour on her family, regardless of her circumstances.

Relatives cover up Aids-related deaths, giving other causes, and those with HIV are shunned if their infections become public.

In 2014, Algeria recorded 845 cases of HIV infection, 410 of them women, with a total of 9 100 officially registered cases in the country as of the end of last year.

Most women caught the disease from their husbands, according to UNAIDS, the United Nations programme on HIV/Aids.

Hayet, a 41-year-old seamstress, said she has two battles on her hand, against the disease and against prejudice.

She learned of her infection 20 years ago on the birth of her daughter, who died with HIV three months later. The baby was followed a year later by her father.

Hayet's in-laws knew that their son, a former drug addict, had HIV but had kept silent.

On his death, they thought "it was unfair for their son to have died and not me," said Hayet, who became a widow at 22 and was denied any inheritance.

'Symbol of dishonour'

Aisha divorced in 2005 at the age of 19, a few months after her arranged marriage to a man who has never admitted to infecting her.

"If it weren't for the support of my parents, I would have gone mad," she said, holding back tears.

The women were interviewed anonymously by AFP but otherwise they remain silent, fully aware that Algerian society judges them as guilty.

For infected women, "Aids is a symbol of dishonour, giving rise to feelings of rejection and stigmatism," said Adel Zeddam, who heads UNAIDS in Algeria.

He said some women steer clear of treatment centres in their areas for fear of being recognised and are left without proper care.

Such women face "double punishment, infected by their spouse and stigmatised by society," said Nawel Lahoual, president of Hayet, a support group for HIV/Aids patients.

A doctor at El Kettar hospital in Algiers told AFP he knew of an academic in his 50s who had married four times despite knowing he was infected with HIV. Left without treatment, all four women died.

In a rare positive story, Safia, a 42-year-old who lost her husband to Aids in 1996, managed to re-marry 15 years later with a man who knew of her condition.

"He married me out of love and hid the facts from his parents," she said.

Advised before their marriage by a doctor on what precautions to take, the couple have lived together for four years without him getting infected.

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