The angel giving cast-out Muslim women with AIDS hope for a normal life

Matron Fadzilah offers a temporary shelter, and some tough love, to HIV/AIDS-infected women rejected by their families.

PETALING JAYA: Becoming infected with HIV/AIDS is bad enough for any woman, but to then be cast out by her own family seems like the end of the world.

Being ostracised by her community is especially tragic for the many women who are innocent victims, having been infected by promiscuous or closet bisexual husbands.

But there is one compassionate woman, Fadzilah Abdul Hamid, better known as Matron Fadzilah, who can offer a temporary home and some tough love to these rejected women and children.

Over 20 years ago, she and fellow senior officers at the health ministry started a care home under the Islamic Medical Association Malaysia.

The late 90s saw increased numbers of women and children infected with HIV, so such a facility was desperately needed.

Since it started, Solehah House has helped nearly 400 victims, 50 of whom were children as young as 20 days old.

At Rumah Solehah, women are encouraged to identify their interests and capabilities and develop their potential so they will be able to earn a living.

Matron Fadzilah’s care home gets referrals from all over Malaysia.

A veteran nurse, she said all women with HIV/AIDS face stigma from their own families and community but particularly Muslim women.

“They come to us because they have been rejected. When they arrive, their self-esteem is shattered. We rebuild their confidence, and then tend to their physical problems such as skin lesions.”

She runs the treatment and counselling programme, integrated with Islamic teachings and values, which can last from three months to two years depending on the individual.

The programme includes working with the women to identify their interests and capabilities and develop their potential so they will be able to earn a living when they return to their communities.

She also teaches them health basics, like how to stay clean in order to prevent transmission of the virus.

For the past five years, there has been a decline in the number of women actually living in the home, she said. The majority of those who come for help are now home-based.

She attributes this to an improvement in public awareness, saying most are now able to stay with their own families who are more accepting.

Rumah Solehah survives with basic funding from the government and the corporate sector.

But others with families who are not as up-to-date about how the virus is transmitted are not as lucky.

“Many families still fear HIV, even though it is just like any other infection. It cannot spread very easily.”

For the past six years, the home has been receiving funding from the Selangor Islamic Religious Council, which also funds a number of other HIV/AIDS shelters.

She believes this is a sign that the Muslim community is becoming more open.

“The Quran teaches us that God is most forgiving, especially for those who have repented,” said Matron Fadzilah.

Running a home is not easy, as staff and funds are usually lacking.

Matron Fadzilah said it is difficult to find new staff, as few are dedicated enough to undergo the strenuous tasks involved in looking after and counselling AIDS patients. Many also worry about becoming infected themselves.

“We cannot retain our staff, especially the younger ones. They are not that interested in staying with us because they have their own lives outside,” she said.

Now there are virtually no full-time staff, but regular volunteers. They also train former patients to return and work at the home.

These days, despite people becoming more aware of the disease, more people are actually contracting HIV.

Matron Fadzilah worries that now most HIV cases are due to casual and unhealthy sexual activity.

She said many people are well aware of the consequences of unprotected sex, but practise it anyway.

“It is a problem for the nation,” she said.

Luckily the angel of Solehah House is there to do what she can.