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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

PAKISTAN: Hijra community seeks HIV awareness

IRINnews.org

LAHORE, 20 Apr 2005 (IRIN/PLUSNEWS) - For members of Pakistan's eunuch-transvestite, or Hijra community, open discussion about HIV/AIDS prevention remains a closed book. Cultural descendents of the court of eunuchs of the Mughal Empire (1526-1858), most Hijra today earn their living as prostitutes, beggars or dancers.

"Our customers aren't interested in such things. They're interested in sex!" Sheila, a 30-something Hijra working the back streets of Lahore's red light Hira Mundi district, told IRIN laughingly.

Sheila's friends nodded in agreement. "We have to satisfy our customers. Wearing a condom is simply not part of the deal," another Hijra giggled, shaking her hair for attention.

But for health experts in the South Asian nation, such candor is concerning, with reportedly just 25 percent of men who buy sex from Hijras actually using a condom. Moreover, with the number of reported cases of HIV/AIDS through sexual transmission increasing, it is clear more work is needed in raising levels of awareness among this group, which reportedly numbers tens of thousands throughout the subcontinent.

However, open discussion about sexuality and HIV, not to mention the Hijra community itself, remains largely taboo in conservative Pakistan. Officially, there are close to 2,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in the country. However, given the nature of the subject, few infected people disclose their status. Some experts estimate the true number of HIV-positive people to be closer to 80,000.

In Islamic Pakistan, the Hijra community is looked down upon and remains socially ostracised. Often mocked or ridiculed, their plight is not easily understood, marginalising the group further in terms of HIV awareness.

Moreover, access to health services is poor, despite high-risk behaviour with regard to prostitution.

One NGO working to address that is the Lahore-based AIDS Prevention Association of Pakistan (APAP). Established in 1996, the group has spearheaded efforts on preventive health, HIV/AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) awareness and reproductive health among the group in and around the city.

"No one speaks openly about the Hijra. Talking about HIV/AIDS with regard to this group simply does not take place," Dr Muhammad Hanif, APAP's general secretary, told IRIN candidly. Working with a team of volunteer educators, many of them members of the Hijra community itself, Hanif hopes to change that. Through local media and an extensive outreach programme, APAP provides literature about HIV/AIDS, STDs and condom usage both to prostitutes and their clients, as well as the benefits of safe sex.

"Most people do not know the risks they are taking. They believe wearing a condom will inhibit their pleasure," Gori Shermi, a peer counsellor and Hijra herself, told IRIN. "I tell them what the truth is."

But getting the message out hasn't been easy. While APAP had succeeded in making inroads where other NGOs dared not venture, financial constraints on the self-funding group have hampered further expansion. In addition to extending its condom distribution effort, APAP would like to establish a resource centre in Lahore, as well as extend its Hijra peer counselling capacity.

"This all requires money," Hanif said. "Frankly, something we do not have a great deal of at the moment."

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