In a small, unassuming building in a quiet suburb of Tunis, a group of young men busily discuss the day ahead. Some, standing by the open, sun-filled doorway, gesture animatedly, their arms flailing, their bodies shaking with laughter. Others sit hunched over steaming cups of coffee, chattering intently, their hushed voices barely audible above the din nearby. It is a relaxed atmosphere, one punctuated by the interchanging sounds of French and Arabic, a distinct cultural symbol of Tunisia’s rich and vibrant history.
Such gatherings are commonplace at the Association Tunisienne de Lutte Contre le Sida (the Tunisian Association Against AIDS). The centre, supported by a range of international associations and NGOs, has been at the forefront of the campaign to increase HIV awareness in Tunisia.
‘We have a system here where we meet every Sunday and talk about our plans for the week ahead,’ says 18-year-old high-school student Adel*, a peer educator at the centre. ‘We have many projects at the Association, such as those dealing with drugs and safe sex, most of which relate to increasing HIV awareness. This also means targeting specific communities, so we’ve focused on sex workers – both male and female – and the gay community.’
Such initiatives have meant that, as well as seeking to educate Tunisia’s young people through the more traditional routes of school visits and leaflet drops at cafés and universities, the centre has been forced to adopt some highly unusual, imaginative strategies in their quest to gather and distribute crucial information on the virus which, according to UNAIDS, affects some 8,700 people in a population of over 10 million.
‘We’ve taken our drive to educate to parks where we know men meet up for sex,’ says Adel, who also points to the potential threat posed by Hepatitis C, a disease with similar modes of transmission to HIV. ‘We’ve been there at 11pm, for example, with the intention of gathering information about their activities (and sexual behaviour). But can you imagine trying to question these men while they’re there to engage in sex? It’s not the easiest thing to do!’
Adel, himself gay, knows more than most about Tunisian attitudes towards homosexuality, a practice still illegal in the country and punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment.
‘It’s not easy discussing things (like homosexuality),’ says Adel, who, apart from confiding in those at the centre, is forced to hide his own sexuality, for fear of being subjected to homophobia. ‘The big problem, of course, is that we still have a lot of prejudice (in Tunisia) when it comes to homosexuality – if you mention it to anyone they’ll keep telling you that it’s haram (forbidden), but this is despite the fact that it goes on a lot here.’
While homosexuality is still regarded as a taboo subject in Tunisia, public reaction to matters involving HIV or AIDS has not always been favourable.
‘I know of one colleague from this centre who got spat at by a woman after he tried to talk to her about HIV awareness,’ says Tarek, another peer educator at the centre. ‘Another time, we were handing out leaflets at a discotheque and when we gave it to one woman she reacted (with horror) and didn’t want to know.’
Apart from acting as a catalyst for profound social change, the centre also serves as a refuge for those living with the virus. Anis is one such person. Diagnosed with haemophilia in early childhood, Anis contracted HIV through a blood transfusion in 1983, some two years before blood screening was introduced in Tunisia. He credits the NGO, where he now works as a volunteer, with pulling him back from the brink of suicide.
‘I was told about the centre when I met another person who was HIV-positive at hospital,’ says Anis, who plunged into a drink-fuelled depression following the discovery of his HIV status five years ago. ‘He encouraged me to go, but I wasn’t very keen. After I discovered I had the virus, I broke up with my fiancée and I was made to resign from work, so I felt that there was no point in doing anything. But I eventually went, and it was the best thing I ever did. They made me feel normal there, more normal than I had felt in such a long time.’
Though optimistic about the future, Adel knows there is still some way to go if his hopes for a more accepting and informed Tunisian society are to be realized.
‘I have seen many good things happen, such as persuading my friends to use condoms – something which has been so successful that they have almost become addicted to protection,’ he says, a hint of laughter in his voice. ‘If we had more money, however, then we could invest in so much – in advertising campaigns, concerts and other similar activities. I’m proud of what we’ve achieved so far, but there is still much more to do.’
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals concerned.Alasdair Soussi