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Ingushetia Mulls Pre-Nuptial HIV Tests

Health specialists say the HIV virus is spreading in the North Caucasus and awareness remains low, hence the drive for more widespread testing. (file photo)
Health specialists say the HIV virus is spreading in the North Caucasus and awareness remains low, hence the drive for more widespread testing. (file photo)
If the president of Ingushetia has his way, couples in the small North Caucasus republic may soon have to take an HIV test before being able to tie the knot.

Yunus Bek Yevkurov this week instructed his government to come up with a proposal for the testing, which he says will help curb the spread of HIV among young people and prevent the transmission of the virus to babies.

His proposal comes on the heels of a similar initiative introduced in neighboring Chechnya last year at the behest of Muslim leaders.

"It's showing good results in the Chechen Republic," Yevkurov told RFE/RL. "People who were diagnosed with the virus were actually grateful that such a system is now in place to diagnose this disease. People with HIV must be helped; no one plans to isolate them from society."

About 1 million HIV sufferers live in Russia, according to UN estimates. And with the number of new cases growing by 10 percent each year, the country has one of the world's highest infection rates.

Relatively Sheltered

The North Caucasus region has been relatively sheltered from the epidemic, largely due to its traditional lifestyle and the strong influence of Islam.

Main page of marriage certificate
Main page of marriage certificate
In Ingushetia, only about 900 people have been diagnosed so far out of a population of 500,000, although health specialists say the real number of sufferers could be three times higher.

Still, the virus is spreading and awareness remains low.

The introduction of HIV screening for brides and grooms has sparked some concern from human rights activists, who say the measure violates Russian law.

But Kheda Aidamirova, who runs Chechnya's Anti-AIDS center, maintains that the measure is justified if it can help fight HIV and AIDS.

"I think it's a very good idea -- it is generating interest outside our republic," she says, adding that she has received requests for information on how her center conducts the testing of grooms and brides before marriage.

According to Aidamirova, the number of positive diagnoses has been low.

"So far we have carried out 17,000 tests and diagnosed 22 people with HIV," she says. "Some of them refused to marry after testing positive. But others went on and married. They simply consulted specialists and now follow their recommendations."

Advocates of pre-nuptial HIV tests argue that this type of screening exists in a number of countries. Several states in the United States and in Mexico request them, and they are compulsory for all Muslims in Malaysia, for instance.

In Chechnya, another drawback of this new type of HIV screening is that couples who do not wish to take the test or who test positive are no longer able to have a Muslim wedding.

Little Romance

But this has not deterred Chechens, most of whom appear to support the tests.

Islam, a Chechen police officer who married last year, claims he is glad that he and his wife got screened, despite admitting the procedure holds little romance.

"My wife and I took the test separately," he says. "Usually the woman gives her future husband the certificate and he takes both papers to the imam who will marry them. The imam then goes to the Muslim Board and writes down the data in a special registry.

"He is given a form in which he writes the number of the certificates attesting that the groom and bride don't have HIV, and he stamps it. Only with this document can you be married religiously."

In Ingushetia, Yevkurov says that the testing would not be mandatory and is simply a "recommendatory, social measure." HIV sufferers, he promises, will also retain their right to a Muslim wedding ceremony.

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