Until a little over a year ago, 29-year-old Karim (not his real name ) was happy and carefree. He had a good job, a stable income and many caring friends. Then he discovered he was HIV positive and his life changed entirely.
“It is as if I am living a nightmare. I constantly worry that someone will find out that I am living with HIV. I cannot bear the thought of being rejected by my family and friends,” says Karim.
Karim’s fear of being stigmatised and isolated is greater than his fear of death, he tells me. He is also plagued by a sense of guilt and has chosen to keep his HIV status a secret.
Low self esteem and fear of rejection are common sentiments shared by Egyptians living with HIV. Out of an estimated 11,000 people in Egypt living with HIV and AIDS, only five hundred are seeking treatment , according to UN reports. And none has publicly disclosed their status .
In the last decade, there has been a 268 per cent increase in HIV cases in Egypt, which UNAIDS Egypt refers to as an “epidemic growth” but which is also partly owed to efforts by the National AIDS Programme to improve HIV testing and reporting. Most transmissions occur sexually with the main mode being heterosexual (nearly 50 per cent.) Girls and women are particularly vulnerable due to their lower socioeconomic status , high illiteracy rates and weak access to prevention and services The widespread stigma associated with HIV is another barrier to ensuring access to prevention, care and treatment especially for high risk groups including streetchildren, sex workers, refugees and prisoners.
A new film currently showing in cinemas across Egypt is a pioneering attempt to change people’s attitudes and help lift the stigma associated with HIV and AIDS.
Giving the virus a human face may help clear misconceptions about HIV /AIDS and eliminate people’s fear of the virus, says Wessam el Beih, UNAIDS Country Coordinator, Egypt.
The film Asmaa is based on a true story of a middle-aged Egyptian woman living with HIV. The real life character died some years ago after doctors refused to perform a gall bladder surgery she so badly needed and which may have saved her life. It is a story about injustice but also one of courage and hope depicting the discrimination faced by Asmaa who eventualy overcomes her fear and stands up for her right to health care .
Tunisian actress Hend Sabry, who plays the lead role, hopes the film will encourage more people living with HIV to speak out and seek treatment. Sabry also hopes the media will put HIV/AIDS and other human rights issues as a priority on their agenda to help clear the misconceptions.
Sabry has campaigned vigorously for the rights of people living with HIV through her participation in forums and TV spots to raise public awareness.
El Beih blames the media for the ignorance and fear adding that”Egyptian media , especially the film industry has for years propagated misinformation and portrayed biased views about people living with HIV.”
Reinforcing stereotypes of people living with HIV has led to prejudice and discrimination against those living with HIV adding to the risk of increased infections.
Amr Salama, script writer and director of Asmaa says the film is timely as it is being screened in post-revolutionary Egypt.
“The fear barrier has been broken. We have to capitalise on that and recapture the spirit of the revolution. Egyptians are on the streets demanding social justice and equality. Discrimination against those living with HIV/AIDS is a form of injustice.”
Salama, who has met many Egyptians living with HIV and heard their stories of suffering, sought to highlight the injustice they face and hoped that that would promote greater tolerance and compassion within the society. Salama was keen on showing the anger and emotional intensity he himself felt when speaking to the people living with HIV.
“What these people have to go through is unacceptable. The culture has become intolerant to the extent that the stigma exists even among those living with the virus themselves, ” he says.
In one scene, a man living with HIV who had shown interest in Asmaa walks away from her after she appears on TV to publicly announce that she is HIV positive.
The film was the brainchild of Egyptians living with HIV who had hoped to show their real life experiences in drama. “We thought that by identifying with us, people would overcome their fear and that this would help us gain acceptance,” says Karim. He and others infected with the virus were involved in the making of the film helping the cast give a factual portrayal of their experiences and daily struggles.
Karim was in the theatre when the film premiered in Cairo recently and was pleased with the enthusiastic response from the audience, which was made up mostly of media representatives, UN agencies, NGOs and medics.
“The film will go a long way in empowering people living with HIV and altering public perceptions,” stated Sawsan el Sheikh, who chairs the Egyptian AIDS Society.
The film has received rave reviews after being screened at a number of major international film festivals with one critic saying the “mix of drama and real life experiences and the humanitarian message of the film will directly touch people’s hearts and is likely to make a huge difference effecting positive social change.”