Not long ago Tajik police were forcing men to shave their beards, convinced a terrorist lurked behind every whisker. Now the health minister has recommended salons stop trimming Tajikistan’s chins lest dirty razors spread HIV.
Nusratullo Salimov said barbers are not doing enough to disinfect their shaving equipment, RIA Novosti quoted him as saying on January 10. The health minister emphasized, however, that the majority of Tajikistan’s new HIV infections are transmitted via dirty needles and unprotected sex. He gave no statistics for new infections from tainted razors.
Facial hair is a popular topic of official chatter in Tajikistan. In late 2010, a number of bewhiskered men told local media outlets they were being harassed by police. Some reported being stopped and forced to shave. At the time, an Interior Ministry spokesman confirmed police were detaining “suspicious” men sporting long beards as part of their search for members of banned Islamic sects. Muslim men, moderate and radical alike, often wear beards out of reverence for the Prophet Muhammad.
More recently, in November, a new injunction sponsored by the State Committee on Religious Affairs reportedly prohibited men from wearing beards longer than their fists, though some officials later denied the existence of any rules. (Ironically, across the border in Afghanistan, the Taliban were once said to forbid men from wearing beards shorter than fist-length.)
Seventy percent of migrant laborers from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan do not use condoms when they pay strangers for sex. They don’t think they need to, apparently: A third believe HIV is contracted only through intravenous drug use; a quarter believe showering after sex prevents HIV.
This risky behavior is widespread, says a recent survey led by Danish Church Aid (DCA), a non-governmental and non-denominational aid organization. As roughly one-third of Afghanistan’s narcotics transit Central Asia and millions of the region’s young people migrate to and from Russia, HIV is exploding.
Widespread denial and ignorance will not help contain the virus.
Almost three in four respondents from Kyrgyzstan have never been tested for HIV; 60 percent of Kyrgyz would not send their child to school if an HIV positive child also studied there. And 68 percent of Tajiks say they would not tell anyone if they tested positive for the virus.
Cluelessness among medical workers sets an alarming precedent. In Kyrgyzstan, half of doctors and nurses believe HIV-positive people have been singled out for divine punishment. Roughly 60 percent – we’re still talking about doctors and nurses here – “would immediately stop buying meat from the vendor if he/she would be identified as HIV-positive.”
Only ignorance may be more infectious than the virus. Almost half of men in both countries believe HIV can be cured.
In the run-up to World Aids Day on December 1, Almaty's Central Museum is hosting a photo exhibition to draw attention to the spread of HIV and TB in Central Asia. The images on display give an insight into the daily lives of people affected by the HIV epidemic, which is quickly spreading throughout Kazakhstan and Central Asia. According to official statistics there are around 50,000 infected people in the region, though the real figure may be much higher.
The exhibition, entitled “We are Near! We are Together!,” brings the work of Ukrainian freelance photographer Alexander Glyadyelov to Kazakhstan for the first time. Glyadyelov has been working on documentary photography projects involving socially deprived children and the HIV/AIDS epidemic since the mid-1990s.
His striking black and white photos are being exhibited alongside images taken by young photographers from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan who are working in the NGO sector, living with HIV, or are from groups at high risk of contracting the virus.
Juxtaposed with everyday scenes of people living with HIV are some harrowing pictures from prison camps in Karaganda, Kazakhstan. HIV and TB are chronic in Kazakhstan's prisons.
It's not only the prison population that is suffering from these infections, however. According to the UNAIDS/WHO 2009 report “AIDS Epidemic Update,” Central Asia and Eastern Europe are the only areas of the world where HIV infection rates among all sectors of the population remain on the rise. The problem is most acute among people injecting drugs and those having unprotected sex.