The war on terror has heaped much negative attention on Pakistan's madrassahs. But two nongovernmental organizations view the network of religious schools as a potential partner in their effort to bring AIDS awareness and prevention to the country.
Contesting the prevalent perception of the epidemic as a Western evil, the NGOs have been working since last year to train clerics and students of madrassahs in an effort to lift the stigma of AIDS and educate them that the disease is not confined to drug users, prostitutes, and homosexuals. In Pakistan, 2,748 people are reported to be HIV positive, but the international health agencies say the number could be as high as 70,000 to 80,000.
Other efforts have been made to involve religious leaders in Muslim countries like Iran, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia. But project officials say that their work in the madrassah network is the first of its kind in the Muslim World and could prove a model for other countries with large networks of Islamic schools.
"Our experience with the madrassahs is difficult but very productive. [Clerics] now talk about AIDS and are willing to spread the message," says Faisal Shafiq, an official with Amal, a health and education NGO based in Islamabad. "We have to make compromises on sensitive religious issue like the use of condoms. But ... we believe we are on the right track."
For their work in the madrassahs Amal and Catholic Relief Services (CRS) are following a pattern adopted in the worst-hit African countries like Uganda, which has a large number of Muslims. There, health workers significantly curbed the spread of HIV by enlisting community leaders and clergy to help spread the message - bolstered by Koranic verses and the Hadith - that caring for a patient is everybody's duty.
While working within conservative Islam has proved successful in raising HIV awareness and lifting stigmas, the discussion of prevention is limited by an aversion to sex education.
"The struggle has been going on between development workers and clergy," says Syed Abdul Mujeeb, a leading Pakistan's expert on AIDS. "There is apparently no contradiction between the two on taking care of patients, but there are serious hurdles in adopting the ... usage of condoms in prevention of the disease.... The Muslim clergy believe that approving promotion of condom use encourages sexual promiscuity."
Madrassahs clerics say they will preach about the disease, but not the use of condoms - except within a marriage where the husband is HIV positive.
"We educate the worshipers at the mosques that AIDS can be transmitted through infected blood transfusions, the use of infected syringes or a shaving razor. We pray that Allah protect us from AIDS and answer the queries of people," says Maulana Abdul Mateen, a trained cleric of Jamaa-e-Masjid in Quetta.
For officials and health workers here, the efforts of Mr. Mateen represent significant progress and show the value of working with clerics.
"They can play an important role as they have great reach to the masses. Today's student of a madrassah will be tomorrow's cleric of a mosque. His single sermon highlighting the issue of AIDS will impact thousands," says Syed Amer Raza, health official at Catholic Relief Services.
Stigma is still attached to those who are HIV-positive here. Nazir Masih was diagnosed with HIV 12 years ago in Lahore, probably through a blood transfusion. "When I tested positive, doctors frightened me so much that I thought of jumping from the hospital floor. They told my family members to isolate me," says Mr. Masih. "Then I got myself educated.... Now I work for the welfare of people living with HIV."
The two NGOs say they are working with clerics and students of 10 madrassahs and will expand its awareness campaign in the provincial madrassah network to all over the country after achieving "initial successes." There are about 20,000 madrassahs in Pakistan.