In a newly released report by UN, Malaysia is one of the 10 countries which together accounted for over 95% of all new HIV infections in the Asia-Pacific region in 2016
It has become a ritual for the country’s authorities to rave and rant about HIV come World Aids Day on Dec 1, which this year is commemorated with the theme ‘Increasing Impact through Transparency, Accountability and Partnerships’s.
There are brooding statistics and troubling scenarios presented about the country’s attempt in eradicating HIV/Aids.
Surrounded by a plethora of details, the nation is told that the stigma, discrimination and prejudice faced by people living with HIV/Aid remains insurmountable.
Malaysia’s first HIV case was recorded in 1986. And as of December 2013, a total of 101,672 cases had been notified and 20,235 people losing their lives to Aids related illnesses.
As of 2016, there were 99,338 HIV positive men and 12,578 HIV positive women in Malaysia.
In a newly released report by the United Nations, Malaysia is one of the 10 countries which together accounted for over 95% of all new HIV infections in the Asia-Pacific region in 2016.
The “Ending AIDS: Progress Towards the 90-90 Targets” report said the other nine countries in Asia were India, China, Indonesia, Pakistan, Vietnam, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and Thailand.
From 1986 until last year, a total of 108,519 HIV cases had been reported, according to the Malaysian Aids Council (MAC).
Over three decades later, the stereotyping has nowhere ceased, with sexual orientation, gender identity and drug abuse still being held to ransom in justifying the prevalence of HIV.
The truth however points to the contrary, that ignorance and the failure or refusal to take the much needed safety measures to allay HIV that are the underpinning factors.
Malaysia’s conservative socio-cultural outlook and the deeply embedded stigma have also caused individuals most at risk and peope living with HIV/Aids to go underground and refuse HIV prevention and treatment services.
Matters are made worse when ill-informed and antagonistic religious leaders decry HIV/Aids as a scourge, as was the case in 2005 when Perak mufti Harussani Zakaria indiscriminately suggested that HIV/Aids carriers be cast away on an island to prevent others from being infected.
That the mufti was prejudiced and ignorant would be an understatement.
Then again, religious authorities like Harussani are not the only ones who relish playing the blame game and victim shaming people living with HIV/Aids.
MAC’s silence unbecoming
On Tuesday, a non-governmental organisation, SEED Foundation (SEED), lambasted a motivational speaker, Robiah k Hamzah, an ustazah or religious teacher, for her disparaging comments about people living with HIV.
It all happened at a World Aids Day event organised by the Health Ministry last Saturday (Nov 25).
In a Facebook post, SEED, which is the country’s first trans-led organisation, said Robiah’s unwarranted assertion included “Pergi tengok calon-calon HIV, betapa sengsara mereka melalui kehidupan” (Those who are HIV-positive live a life full of pain and hardship).
SEED was left distraught with Robiah’s remarks saying she made “extremely discriminatory comments” about marginalised communities affected by HIV which were unsubstantiated and “downright damaging”.
Robiah had also said, “Mak Nyah kenapa nak tukar fitrah?” (Why should trans-women “change” themselves), “Siapa nak mandikan kamu bila kamu mati?” (Who will clean you when you die?) and “Mak Nyah mati sebagai lelaki” (Trans-women will die as men, not as women), it claimed.
To SEED, the comments were “utterly false” and proved Robiah’s ignorance on the subject.
SEED hit the nail on the head when it questioned Robiah’s presence at the event and the Health Ministry’ willingness to bear witness to the condemnation of vulnerable communities and who were in desperate need of empathy and support.
“Why is the ministry condoning religious and corrective approaches in their programmes that clearly create more harm and are condemned by international agencies like WHO and the UN?
“Why is the health ministry implying that if transgender people repent, HIV infection rates will decrease when there is absolutely no factual basis for this?”
It is obscenely shameful that 32 years after Malaysia noted its first HIV case, the Health Ministry remains indiscernible to the issue of HIV and Aids and the communities concerned.
SEED also took a swipe at the Malaysian Aids Council (MAC) for its silence over Robiah’s castigation of the marginalised communities.
MAC, set up in 1992, acts as an umbrella organisation to support and coordinate the efforts of NGOs working on HIV and Aids issues in Malaysia.
Health Ministry unaware of Robiah’s ignorance
That MAC liaises closely with government agencies throws a spanner in the works as the council more often than not is caught in a bind vis-a-vis MAC’s attempts at raising awareness on a subject as sensitive as HIV/Aids.
SEED was perplexed as to why MAC as the biggest HIV/Aids NGO working with the Health Ministry saw no reason to criticise the decision to invite Robiah to speak at the event.
SEED is urging MAC to investigate the ministry’s actions and wants the assurance that discrimination in any form against marginalised communities and those living with HIV would not be tolerated.
“Surely we have not forgotten that HIV does not discriminate. The health ministry is responsible for the well-being of all people in this country, regardless of race, religion, gender, sexuality, class or disability.
“Unfortunately, the event, for World Aids Day no less, shows the utter lack of empathy and understanding from those who are supposed to be the leaders in fighting HIV in this country,” SEED bemoaned.
On Nov 30, Putrajaya decided to wash its hands off the hornet’s nest stirred by Robiah, with the Federal Territory health department saying her comments about transgenders were her personal views and were based on her own experience dealing with HIV patients.
“Her views do not reflect that of the health ministry,” department director, Dr Zainudin Abdul Wahab told news portal FMT in a statement.
He said the ministry does not discriminate when it comes to treating and providing preventive measures for those living with HIV and Aids.
But then why invite Robiah? Were there no other speakers who could address the subject of HIV/Aids?
Also, has the Health Ministry no idea of just how knowledgeable or ignorant Robiah is on the subject of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and HIV/Aids?
While Robiah’s views were not be in harmony with that of the Health Ministry’s, the responsibility however falls on the latter to ensure the speaker does not bring in personal bias and callousness when talking about a sensitive subject.
While Zainuddin struggles to deflect the Health Ministry’s agenda in getting Robiah on board, the so-called mystery behind the Health Ministry’s refusal to adopt a pliable attitude on the issue of HIV/Aids, a subject so delicate and much in need of tolerance, acceptance and understanding, remains.