HIV-positive matchmaking brings hope in Nigeria
When 32-year-old Talatu Umar tested positive two years ago after the death of her husband, she ruled out the possibility of ever marrying again.
But today Umar is the happily married mother of a three-month-old baby through a so-called 'positive pair' dating and marriage scheme run by a Nigerian state-run agency.
Umar and her new husband Kamilu Ismail, 46, are among 110 HIV-positive couples who in the past year have met and married through the project, known by its acronym BACATMA, in the northern Bauchi state.
By matching those who already have the virus, the agency aims to help contain the spread of HIV /AIDS in this predominantly Muslim state which has one of the highest infection rates in Nigeria.
Of the thousands of cases the agency has handled, more than 100 have involved young women who married as virgins but were infected shortly afterwards due to their husbands concealing their status.
Bauchi, one of Nigeria's 12 states which uses the sharia (Islamic) legal system, plans to make HIV screening mandatory for engaged couples, according to Mukhtar Ahmed, head of a government body overseeing sharia law in the state.
'These sad experiences informed our decision to come up with this programme so as to curb the spread of the virus as those living with the virus can marry among themselves and live a happy life without putting other members of the society at risk,' Mohammed added.
'We have so far joined 110 HIV positive couples in matrimony out of which 15 have given birth to HIV -free children and we have eight intending (engaged) couples on the waiting list,' Mohammed said.
The project was set up in January 2008 to curb the spread not just of HIV but also tuberculosis, leprosy and malaria in the state. The large number of divorced or widowed people coming forward, however, sparked the matchmaking idea.
There are now 25 clinics offering free HIV -testing and counselling.
Counselling sessions allow some 10,000 infected people the opportunity to meet, date and make marriage proposals.
'All but one of the 110 marriages have succeeded and three husbands have taken second wives through the match-making process,' he said. Islam allows a man to take up to four wives.
It took Umar just four weeks after the death of her first husband to take an HIV test and meet her new suitor.
'I was waiting my turn to receive ARVs (antiretroviral drugs) when a nurse came up to me and told me to go to the BACATMA office for an important discussion,' Umar said.
'On reaching the office I met my suitor with Dr Rilwanu Mohammed who told me of the marriage proposal and I asked for a week to think over it. The rest is now history,' she added, dabbing her baby?s tear-streaked cheeks.
Bauchi state government pays HIV-positive couples who marry a monthly 40,000 naira (250 dollar) allowance.
The couples are encouraged to use condoms to avoid cross transmission of different HIV strains and only have condom-free sex on days when the woman is ovulating in order to conceive.
'We counsel the couple on how to protect the baby from infection and so far all the 15 children born from this marriage programme are HIV negative,' Mohammed said.
According to BACATMA, 125,000 people tested HIV -positive in Bauchi last year down from 156,000 in 2005.
Nigeria's average HIV infection rate is around three percent of the 140 million population.
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