HIV-positive women in Iran face ignorance, stigma

HIV-positive women and children gathered for a picnic organised by an organisation in Karaj, Iran.
 
A new wave of HIV infections is well underway in Iran. This is cause for serious concern in a country where knowledge on preventing its spread is in short supply, while the age at which people start having sex has fallen, according to health workers. For women infected with the virus, life can be especially difficult.
 
The Iranian authorities have been talking about a "third wave" of HIV infections since last year.
Contributors

“Many women are abandoned by their relatives”

Mehdi works at the Alborz Council for Support and Assistance, a charitable organisation that helps women and children infected with HIV in the city of Karaj. He holds educational workshops on the subject.
  
Ninety percent of the women we help in the impoverished areas of Karaj received the virus through their husbands, many of whom contracted the virus in prison, where they are sharing needles for taking drugs or for tattoos. The rest of these women are heroin addicts and were infected by sharing needles. Most of these women are abandoned by their relatives. Since some of their husbands died of AIDS and left them head of their households, we try to find jobs or a source of income for them [Editor’s note: the Iranian government provides the necessary medicine to AIDS patients free of charge].
 
At the council, we also try to empower women so that they don’t try to hide their disease. What’s surprising is the behaviour of doctors and dentists, who have plenty of information about the disease, but still refuse to treat infected women. This is where we intervene. We introduce these women to doctors and dentists who are prepared to cooperate with us.
 
The problem is stigma attached to the disease in Iran. For example, the medical community in Karaj ostracized a female doctor who works with us, because she helped a mother infected with HIV deliver her child at the hospital. Other physicians told her that she had no right to deliver this woman’s baby in the same hospital where people without HIV go. Fortunately, her child was born healthy and didn’t have HIV.

“The medical community in one city ostracized a female doctor who helped deliver the baby of a mother with HIV”
 
We try to do everything we can to prevent infected women from committing suicide. We have a woman who set herself on fire from the neck down. We have also seen cases of women who want to get revenge by intentionally giving the virus to others. They think they can get revenge on the society that has turned them into outcasts. We try to prevent that, too, by talking to them about their anger.
 
Every month we give women between 1,000,000 to 2,000,000 Rials [about 30 to 60 euros] to spend on each of their children, on the condition that the child and the mother with HIV attend our meetings. We teach them how to deal with this disease, and how to tell people about their condition. We try to find them homes, we get psychiatrists to speak to them, and we take them out on picnics and trips every two weeks or so.
 

“Schools won’t let us talk to students about how to use condoms”

Elaheh also works at the Council for Support and Assistance.
  
With this third wave of HIV, people need to be taught from a young age how to prevent spreading the virus. During President Mohammad Khatami’s term, there were posters at high schools warning about risky sexual activities and methods of preventing HIV. This was discontinued under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. So far, in the three months since President Hassan Rohani has taken office, nothing has changed.
 
Every time we have tried to give information about HIV and AIDs in high schools, we were told that we were giving the students too much information [about sex]. This is while the age at which people start having sex in Iran keeps decreasing. [According to a recent survey, 40 percent of boys and girls have had sexual relations before age 18. Of those, 40 percent started having sex before age 14].
 
At a high school in the low-income neighborhoods of Karaj, we asked a teacher to bring to one side any girl with questions about sex, so that we could speak to them openly and teach them how to use condoms. But the school wouldn’t let her. At this same high school, all 1,500 female students were tested for HIV and 19 tested positive.
 
The child of an HIV-positive mother having some fun at a picnic organised by our Observer's NGO.

There are four main prisons in Karaj, one of which is specifically for drug addicts. Many of these prisoners have HIV, but prison officials allow them to have conjugal meetings [during which the prisoner is allowed to have sex with his spouse]. They don’t use condoms, and as a result their wives catch HIV. We spoke to the prison warden about this issue and were told that it was none of our business.
 
Children of HIV-positive mothers receive gifts during an event organised by our Observer's NGO. 
 
Another issue is that we don’t have proper statistics on the number of people that die from AIDS, because their cause of death is put down as a ‘heart attack’. We’ve tried several times to speak to officials about this but without any success.
 
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