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Goodwill Ambassador Abol Naga discusses FGM, HIV and local Media
Published in Daily News Egypt on 19 - 08 - 2007

CAIRO: Last April, actor, TV presenter and radio host Khaled Abol Naga received a phone call from the Unicef s headquarters in Egypt informing him of their decision to grant him the prestigious title of Goodwill Ambassador.
Unicef s decision was based on the star s volunteering activities and his efforts to raise awareness about HIV and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) through the organization s Unite for Children program.
In a Zamalek coffee shop, Abol Naga discussed with Daily News Egypt his new post, the murky water surrounding FGM and HIV, shortcomings of Egyptian media and Unicef s future plans.
Daily News Egypt: When and why did you start participating in charity programs?
Khaled Abol Naga: I always wanted to have a role in charity work but I couldn t find the proper outlet. When fame came, I was more eager to find a role. There s so much going on in Egyptian media nowadays and I felt that I could use the spotlight to help those in need.
The real start came when a friend of mine got me involved in youth programs - and I was changed for good. Initially, I considered [volunteering] as a way to feel better about myself through helping others. Instead, I found it to be very inspiring.
One story that truly moved me was about a group of young volunteers who confronted a lot of resistance when they tried to raise awareness about FGM in Upper Egypt. One mother came up to them and told them she chose to circumcise her daughter because she wasn t fully developed like the rest of the girls. She went to a physician and asked him to perform a severe kind of circumcision on her daughter. As a result, the daughter suffered complications and she s still in agony until this very day. Afterwards, the mother felt guilty and started to campaign [against FGM] with the volunteers.
Everything I ve learned from the determination of these young people - and how HIV positive patients survive by finding hope and comfort in each other - changed me into a different person.
When did the Unicef decide to grant you the post?
I have participated in several activities throughout the years, but my work with Unite for Children, Unite against AIDS and Hepatitis C Campaign were my milestone.
The idea of the campaign was to link both diseases since they are both transmitted the same way. We have the highest Hepatitis C rate in the world and the campaign aimed to sound the alarm by informing people that AIDS, if not controlled, tested for and prevented, could become as prevalent.
I always felt that when celebrities hold such posts or volunteer for certain causes, they try to avoid controversial topics like AIDS or other taboos so as not to lose their audience. For me, this is an oxymoron. I want to use my celebrity to confront people with issues that need a heightened awareness.
I remember facing a lot of red-tape back when I was a TV host in Nile TV and "Good Morning Egypt whenever I tried to talk about HIV or FGM. Statistics were always withheld and I realized that the state-run media is always trying to bury these topics from public and the world.
Some experts claim that HIV doesn t stand as a real threat in Egypt.
HIV in Egypt is increasing in the second highest rate in the world and few people are aware of that fact. The lack of awareness can be catastrophic. For example, one woman we met found out by chance that her husband was HIV positive after his death. She later found out, also by chance, that she got the disease from her husband and, of course, she wasn t taking any medication. She lived in fear for months before joining a counseling group and started to become hopeful again.
The problem is that HIV is still synonymous with shame and sin. People have to realize that HIV is an epidemic no different than Hepatitis C and they must detach the stigma associated with it.
How about your efforts with FGM? Were you surprised by the recent incidents?
No. The only reason the Bodour incident received this intense media coverage because it took place during a conference that was going on at the same time. Numerous cases have taken place before and since.
The key for solving the FGM crises is for two or three families [from one village] to come out, acknowledge their mistakes and discuss it with the other families and neighbors. This method has proven to be successful and many villages have become circumcision-free.
The schoolgirls in these villages who volunteer told me that the problem is rooted in people s misconception that circumcision is part of religion even though Al Azhar and the Church have banned the practice.
The girls told me that the media channels village residents follow have given little attention to the condemnation from religious institutions. When I tuned in to Iqra channel, one of the most popular stations among the village tenants, I was stunned to witness a debate between two sheikhs about when and how circumcision should be performed.
We live in a society that believes any religious discourse and the newspapers that cover these issues are only read by a certain strata of society. You re only talking to yourselves, one of the girls told me - and she s right.
What do you think is wrong with the media? Is it the ineffectiveness of the message? Is the message not strong enough? Is not as frequent as it should be?
All of the above. Also, the fact that media professionals don t listen. How many media representatives went down to these villages and listened to the problems these people are facing? They don't know the needs of ordinary people, they don t speak their language and they don t know how to reach them.
NGOs listen more and that s why they re much more successful than the government and the media. The media and politicians are totally detached from the average citizen and real life. The only way media can play a significant role is to through terrestrial and local TV channels that are not under government control. People no longer trust local TV, which has become a mouthpiece for the government. They believe and respond to messages they receive through satellite TV channels.
The other major problem with journalists is that they re not cultured or informed enough. Look at the terms many journalists use to describe HIV or the incorrect, misleading numbers they use that no one seems to question.
Tell us about the street children program.
Children should have clear rights that protect them from violence on the street, at work or at home. Street children are a victim of the changing social and familial values that have substantially deteriorated. The majority of children who abandon their homes don t go back. The street becomes their home. What we re trying to do is create a healthy environment for them.
Is the government doing enough to work on these issues?
The government is always doing things late. I can understand if it is a financial problem, but that s not the case. That is why I cannot respect these officials. What frustrates me is the lack of proper planning. For example, why didn t the government study and prepare for the current water crises 10 years before it actually happened?
What s next for you and Unicef?
We re still proceeding with the Unite for Children, Unite against AIDS and Hepatitis C Campaign. We are also starting a new FGM campaign called "The Beginning of the End. We re basically using circumcision-free villages as models to try and break the opposing groups in the villages where circumcision is still widespread.
For more information, please call 0800 700 8000 for the HIV awareness and counseling hotline; and 16000 for the child rights and labor hotline.

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