How Dating Apps are increasing STDs and HIV in Pakistan

Experts claim dating apps are increasing the risk of STDs and HIV in Pakistan. DESIblitz takes a closer look at the issue, exploring the stigmas behind it.

Man looking at his phone

If a person was to reveal they had HIV, it could lead to rejection from society.

Dating apps are generally regarded as a helpful tool for meeting new people. Making connections, whether that be a casual hookup or a meaningful relationship. But could they actually increase the risk of STDs and HIV in Pakistan?

Experts believe so and are warning young people in the country of this concerning issue. They claim the rising popularity of these apps, as well as social media, have an effect on HIV prevalence.

However, when one takes a closer look, many alternative factors come into play.

While conservative Pakistan is shrouded in sexual taboos, its younger generation is becoming more liberal. With some wishing to pursue sexual relationships.

These dating apps provide that opportunity merged together with the popularity of smartphones. But what else could be causing the increase of STDs and HIV?

A Ten-Year Increase

Over the last decade, the rates of HIV infection has witnessed a staggering increase. For example, a 2016 tally compared the figures of 2005 with those recorded in 2015.

In terms of the number of people living with HIV/AIDS, 2005 witnessed 8,360 reported cases. However, this jumped dramatically to nearly 46,000 in 2015. A figure that has increased by 17.6% – the highest globally reported.

The tally also explored the demographics that are affected by this increase. While it focused on Sindh, one can apply it to the rest of Pakistan. Within the region, men and those aged between 18-30 have the highest number of reported cases, with 989 and 658 respectively.

Tables showing HIV prevalence

Sadly, as the rate of those living with this condition rises, so too does the number of deaths. From 360 in 2005 up to 1,480 in 2015, showing the worrying extent of this issue. However, one must also realise these figures only concern reported cases.

The National AIDS Control Programme (NACP) believes there are 0.133 million living with HIV in the country. But, why are so many ‘hiding’ their condition?

There are many answers to this question. One lies in the stigma attached to the condition. Many assume it links with casual sex and homosexuality; deeply regarded as taboo subjects.

If a person was to reveal they had HIV, it could lead to rejection from society. For example, a 58-year-old HIV patient named Nazir told Dawn:

“My friends and neighbours started avoiding me. Our family would be treated with discrimination at all social gatherings; we were never invited to parties and social gathering. My entire family was being punished for my mistakes.”

In addition, we should consider that an individual may not realise they have the condition. Meaning some fail to recognise its symptoms.

Rising Use of Smartphones

The NACP published a study taking a closer look at the rise of HIV in Pakistan. Identifying four key groups, which consisted of people who inject drugs, female sex workers (FSW), men who have sex with men (MSM) and the transgender population, they explored how the condition is spreading.

Within these groups, one can see several patterns emerging. The popularity of smartphones clashing with the lack of safe sex and HIV/STDs awareness.

For example, all sex workers used their smartphone as one of their main sources for clients. For MSM sex workers, it was their second most used source at 38.6%, as well as 2.1% directly using mobile apps. In addition, 35.3% of FSW also sourced clients via phones, second to a madam (an indiviudal who arranges client for sex worker and collects some of their earnings).

Lastly, a mobile was the most popular way to find clients for transgender sex workers, with a figure of 38.6%.

When one looks at the consistent condom use of all three groups, these statistics are surprising low. In the transgender community, sex workers would regularly wear a condom with 13.1% of paid clients and 6.7% of non-paid clients. For non-sex-workers, 9.7% of them would consistently use a condom.

Graphs of consistent condom use in transgender community

Amongst FSW, they would always use a condom with 38.1% of paid clients and 10.9% of non-paid clients. However, MSM shockingly revealed their consistent condom use was 8.6%, with sex workers at 8.3%.

One would immediately question why these groups would be less likely to regularly use contraception. Especially as condoms are regarded the best precaution for STDs and HIV.

However, the study found that many lacked the critical understanding of these conditions, particularly of HIV. When asked about their knowledge, only 58.1% of transgender people knew HIV could be transmitted by sexual intercourse, while 47.4% knew condoms can prevent their spread.

With FSW, only 28.7% knew where to go for HIV tests. While 42.8% of MSM knew that a healthy-looking person could have the condition.

Graph showing consistent condom use between MSW and FSW

One can argue that this study only concerns four key groups, of which places a focus on sex workers. However, it still reflects the rising issue of HIV in Pakistan and how it affects the younger generation.

The Contribution of Stigma

The country is not alone in this situation. The UK and US also face concerns that mobile apps are playing a role in the rise of HIV.

Indeed, many of these apps have now changed their focus. While they once aimed to encourage people to find their next relationship, now they are used mainly for hookups, casual sex or even cheating. Popular apps such as Tinder and Grindr have become infamous for this.

While mobile apps are popular globally, they hold more importance in Pakistan. They offer the chance for many to explore their sexuality, even experimenting or embracing who they are. By meeting others through their phone, it offers privacy. To keep it hidden from society, meaning they can keep up a pretence.

Sophia Furqan of NACP adds this is particularly true with homosexual males, saying:

“In Pakistan, there has been a rise in HIV among boys and men, due to easy access to male dating apps, because of advancement in technology, and availability of inexpensive gadgets.”

However, the country faces a bigger issue with this than other nations due to cultural perceptions. The very stigmas these individuals try to escape from can potentially hinder their health if they do contract STDs or HIV.

As sex, contraception and homosexuality are ‘taboo’, this results in limited education on sexual health. For example, in the 2017 study, sex workers who were new to their occupation were less likely to regularly use a condom compared to those more experienced.

Graph showing consistent condom use by education

This suggests then that Pakistan needs certain steps to tackle this issue. While it may seem easy to point the blame at certain factors, now is the time to take action.

Raising Awareness

Despite the lack of efforts within the Pakistani government, private NGOs have dedicated their services to support those with the condition. Dostana Male Health Society works closely with homosexual men, aiming to progress their social and health rights.

They engage with communities through interventions and events, directly addressing stigmas. By breaking down typical misconceptions, they hope to increase knowledge of STDs and HIV in many young Pakistanis.

However, it seems the government still need to implement better education on sexual health. Avoiding these topics will not erase this evident problem. Instead, schools inform students on practising safe sex, allowing them to make informed decisions whether they do pursue sexual relationships.

From research, it is clear that dating apps are increasing the rate of STDs and HIV in Pakistan. However, we cannot place it as the sole blame. Deeply rooted taboos also play a role, with individuals not always exposed to the information they need.

But the actions needed still face a long journey. One that requires the support of the government, NGOs and the acceptance of society.

Sarah is an English and Creative Writing graduate who loves video games, books and looking after her mischievous cat Prince. Her motto follows House Lannister's "Hear Me Roar".

Images courtesy of Reuters and National AIDS Control Programme (Integrated Biological & Behavioural Surveillance in Pakistan 2016-2017).


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