Are you thinking what I'm thinking?

{November 6, 2013}   Morality, condoms and HIV

Scenario one:
“Do not promote condoms here, they encourage immorality.” “Condoms are against our culture.” “Condoms are laced with diseases.” Anti-condom sentiment in Zambia takes different narratives with some anchored on paranoia, myth, ignorance, cultural dos and don’ts and so on. The immorality narrative, however, is one of the commonest. This is the one that gets repeatedly expressed even by some influential members of society like politicians and religious leaders. My (potentially wrong) understanding is that condoms, within this narrative, are seen as encouraging people to have sex outside marriage, which is the sole relationship with moral approval for sexual activity.
I imagine that (again potentially wrong) the belief is that without condoms, many people will be reluctant to engage in pre or extra marital sex because they will be afraid of catching STIs including HIV. So through this fear, sexual immorality is curbed… there are of course other reasons like religious principles, personal choice etc. For those motivated by fear though, once condoms are introduced in the picture, fear leaves and sex becomes free for all. Or maybe the assumption is that school kids know nothing about sex and condom education and access will rob them of their innocence and introduce them too early to the adult world of sex. Remember, these are just my theories about how “condoms encourage immorality” and I have no idea how close to or far from the truth they are; the advocates of this view are in a better position to explain.
Scenario two:
“1 out of 3 young people gets HIV everyday in Zambia….Zambia does not have the luxury of not using condoms… Prevention messages are out there and condoms are out there but availability and accessibility do not equal use. People just do not use condoms, how do we change that?” Dr. Mary Otieno, UNFPA Country Representative (Quote partly paraphrased).
Approximately 14.3 % of adult Zambians (15-49 years) are living with HIV and the predominant mode of transmission is unprotected sex (sex without condoms). We are not doing as well as many other countries; ours is almost three times Kenya’s current prevalence rate for example. Why are we still recording so many preventable new HIV infections even when there is so much information, professional support and easily accessible prevention tools?

I had been meaning to blog about the upcoming 16 days of activism against Gender Based Violence (November 25 – December 10) and how, in addition to everything else, I find it especially significant that World AIDS Day falls within this same period. I wanted to blog about GBV, the impact of unequal power relations on sexual relations, vulnerability to HIV infection, state of sexual and reproductive health needs and rights for the average woman, unplanned pregnancies/children especially among the young and their role in perpetuating poverty and lack of empowerment…it was a long list of issues that I wanted to get into and I had no idea where to start or how to present them. Then last week I got invited to a UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) stakeholders training and launch of Condomize Zambia! a campaign to promote condom use in Zambia. It is there that I had a moment of clarity with regard to how I would start what I hope to be the first of a number of related blogs.
On day one, we were all asked to write down our expectations of the training and our fears then a few randomly selected ones were read out and one fear was “the condomize campaign will encourage immorality in Zambia.” I am very familiar with this view and it no longer shocks me, but in that space of stakeholders working to fight against HIV, it came like a punch in the gut. I do not know if the participant who wrote that actually believes it or if they were just trying to remind us of the existence of this view so that we could launch a discussion on it. I can only hope it is the latter.
Not too long ago, a newspaper quoted the Gender deputy minister saying government would be going against morals if it allowed the distribution of condoms in schools. He believes that would promote immorality because “we will be asking children to be experimenting….We have a moral obligation as a country, as families, to ensure that we look after our children…” He was a different person saying an already well repeated thing.
I saw a similar view but in stronger language in a letter to the editor in another paper addressing “immoral and irresponsible NGOs” and it read in part “Zambia has cultural values which should be protected from these agents of western depravity…We will not allow pervert organisations and individuals to destroy our society through their promotion of immorality among our children…The fact that there is an increase in teenage pregnancies and illegal abortions is not a licence for these peddlers of evil to justify immorality”
How do we address this tension between morality and cultural standards and the HIV reality on our hands? What are your views?
For me, I worry a lot whenever I hear this anti-condom speech, regardless of the source. I worry about the implications of being a country with such a huge HIV and AIDS challenge yet still dismissing one of the best and most accessible forms of prevention against infection and re-infection. I worry about the many prevention opportunities that will keep getting missed due to prioritising condom stigma over people’s lives. With 52 % of our population aged 18 and younger, I worry that the much loved “they are too young to know about or access condoms” will send a generation to a war front without the necessary information to make smart choices.
I went to grade eight when I was 11 turning 12, I was quite young but my new environment did not respect that. There were boys and girls, some much older and more exposed to certain ways. There was pressure to do all kinds of things including drinking beer and having sex, and no there were no NGOs promoting condom use those days. Some people around me got away with it all, others were not so lucky and ended up pregnant etc and lucky for me, my sex education had not been based on fear. My sex education was part of a bigger education on knowing and valuing myself and my goals, on the various possibilities that lay ahead and how my choices would determine what I end up with, on being an individual and never forgetting where I came from no matter how big a crowd I found myself in. I was young but I was well empowered with information and I do not remember ever making a choice due to external influence, and even today at such a different stage in my life, external influence still does not make it on my list of motivations for making any decision that I consider personal.
What is the point of this life history, you may ask. My point is people are best taught young. If your child, no matter how young, is properly prepared no amount of information or access to condoms will make them have sex if that is not what they believe in. My point is ignorance is hardly a smart choice for a young person you love especially now in a time of HIV. As parents and guardians and indeed any adult with young loved ones, the best you can hope for is that they will adhere to the values you have imparted; I am assuming all adults do that somehow. In the event that they do not and say decide to have sex prematurely without your knowledge, as many do, would you not prefer then that they do the next best thing and protect themselves?
The 14.3 % includes 15 year olds who contracted HIV through unprotected sex. This is our reality. When stats on school girls who got pregnant in each province get presented, it is always about the policy that allows them to return to school after maternity leave. This is a great policy but I would be happy if those stats were also discussed in relation to exposure to HIV. If so many can and do get pregnant, then that entire number was at some point vulnerable to HIV infection. Now add to that the many more who do not get pregnant and therefore their status as sexually active school girls and boys never comes under public scrutiny. Consider casual sex and the various ways it occurs among young and old, multiple and concurrent sexual partnerships, intergenerational sex, gay sex and so many other realities that we as a society prefer to pretend do not exist. Is this blanket dismissal of condoms our best option? Will people continue feeling scandalized by the promotion of condom use even given our reality?

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