Save a Life, Stop Stigma
The Middle East is not particularly well known for its open-mindedness and tolerance when it comes to drug users, HIV positive people and HIV/AIDS. These issues are usually very hushed, with very few people (if any) daring to be open about their status and very few families admitting that , no, their son is not abroad studying Business, but rather in a rehabilitation facility, overcoming an addiction.
Why is that, you might ask? Oh well, simply because the stigma and discrimination surrounding these issues are simply much too hard to bear, and people would rather lie or hide than face the unbearable pressure from society. And who could blame them? When you hear some comments whispered even during commonplace events such as weddings in the Middle East, you understand easily why no one would like to be under people’s scrutiny.
Nevertheless, as with everything else, sometimes mentalities can start shifting once people try and talk about sensitive issues: this is advocacy’s biggest strength, and this is why campaigning is so important.
This is what the Middle East North Africa Network on Harm Reduction (MENAHRA) has understood, and is currently doing through the implementation of a wide range of actions. “Harm Reduction”: I can almost picture you frowning in front of this barbaric concept, so let us do a quick review of what it means. According to the Harm Reduction Coalition, Harm Reduction
“is a set of practical strategies that reduce negative consequences of drug use, incorporating a spectrum of strategies from safer use to managed use to abstinence. Harm reduction strategies meet drug users “where they’re at,” addressing conditions of use along with the use itself.”
Made simpler, Harm Reduction strategies mean admitting that drug use exists, that it can have severe consequences (for example, if injecting drug users swap needles, they might swap for an infected syringe and thus are at higher risk of contracting HIV) and that, rather than just pretend the whole thing doesn’t exist, the issue need to be addressed in order to control the damage and consequences. Harm Reduction actions are all the more important in the Middle East because the region is facing a real drug problem (Opioids, Khat, Stimulants being the most used drugs, and around 523,000 people are considered to be injecting drug users in the Middle East and North Africa, a number that doesn’t take into account drugs users who smoke or ingest the drugs) and because, as a consequence to this and to lack of information, one of the main mode of HIV transmission in the MENA is through infected needles.
Therefore, MENAHRA is trying to implement Harm Reduction programmes and to raise awareness regarding these issues both among key stakeholders and civil society by creating knowledge hubs. “Nothing about us without us” once said a lobby group of HIV positive women: MENAHRA has understood that and is trying to put this statement into practice by actively involving drug users in the programmes and campaigns designed for them.
However, it is one thing to develop strategies and implement programmes, but it is quite another thing to raise awareness among a somewhat weary civil society and broader public. Strategies have to be teamed with a safer environment for drug users and HIV positive people where their Human Rights such as the right to privacy, the right to health and the right not to be discriminated against are respected, and this can only be achieved with the help of the media and various networks. Mainstreaming issues into non-specific media is tremendously important, and in order to achieve this, the SIDC Sub-Regional Knowledge Hub (KH-SIDC) that is currently hosting MENAHRA, held on January 20th-21st 2010 in Beirut a workshop on Harm Reduction strategies and the Media. The workshop brought together around 19 participants from media institutions from Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, the Sultanate of Oman and the UAE . A wide spectrum of Media representatives attended the event, including journalists, reporters, TV progamme directors and representatives from 2 production houses involved in preparing documentaries on drugs and HIV/AIDS. The workshop had a clear double objective of sensitizing and informing the media actors on Harm Reduction, and in doing so, of increasing the coverage these issues get in the region, while aiming at encouraging the advocacy for Harm Reduction in the MENA region.
The participants benefited from informative sessions on Harm Reduction such as demonstrations on the equipment used on Needle/Syringes programmes, and participated in debates and group work on the rights of drug users and ethical considerations while writing about or engaging with drug user populations. This is crucial to the advocacy effort that the media can take part in: in order to bring positive change to a given situation, communicators need to use positive and non-discriminatory language, a skill that does not often come naturally, especially in relation to Harm Reduction and HIV/AIDS.
A positive outcome of the workshop were features that were ran in different newspapers and one TV station on Harm Reduction, a sign that the media are getting ready to become agents of change. We cannot stress enough the importance of visibility given to such initiatives: running programmes give much-needed support to target groups while advocacy campaign raise awareness among the public regarding HR, facilitating prevention and respect for everybody’s Human Rights . While it is true that the HIV prevalence is still rather low in the MENA region (and keep in mind this is only an estimation as governments are not being very good are sharing statistics), the huge problems associated with drugs (be it drug trafficking or drug use) need to be properly addressed if we really are serious about keeping this prevalence low and preventing even more lives to be shattered by drugs.
At the time when the whole world is getting ready for the the XVIIIth International AIDS conference to be held in Vienna, it is high time the Middle East makes its voice heard and starts implementing change on these issues.
If you’re a Media representative wanting to write about HIV and Harm Reduction, please find the link to the UNAIDS terminology that is being used globally: http://data.unaids.org/pub/Manual/2008/jc1336_unaids_terminology_guide_en.pdf
More from UNAIDS on HIV and Injecting Drug Users: http://www.unaids.org/en/KnowledgeCentre/Resources/FeatureStories/archive/2009/20090312_MBartosInterview.asp
A Very warm Thank You to the MENAHRA Team for giving us so much insight and information.