Thursday, December 1, 2011

World AIDS Day: Still Much More to Do (Rwanda and Kenya)

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If it weren't for twitter, I would not have noticed that today is the Worlds AIDS Day. Which begs the question, how can such an important day escape unnoticed?

Perhaps it depends on where one happens to live. Back home in Rwanda, World AIDS Day is a very visible event. The occasion normally attracts huge crowds in public stadiums where long speeches are given. This might be why Dada Kim writes:

I’m usually asked on World AIDS Day what people can do and what needs to be done, so thought I’d share one important bit: Africans aren’t in need of awareness-raising. As we should expect from people living in a high-HIV context, likely knowing someone to have died of AIDS: they know about AIDS. In fact, many of them know enough to know how to protect themselves from AIDS, according to recently released poll data from Gallup.
On AIDS awareness, I do believe Dada Kim is right. In fact, perhaps awareness on AIDS is more needed in the United States, where AIDS is ravaging communities. In particular, African Americans have been most affected by the epidemic. While they represent only 14% of the population, they account for 44% of the new HIV infections. The situation is quite dire!

That is not to say that the situation of AIDS in Africa is completely manageable. It differs from country to country. What is clear is that, as Dada Kim says, almost everyone knows the disease exists. But challenges still remain. In my view, the challenges are both cultural and economic.

First is the prohibitive cost of purchasing condoms. In Kenya for instance, a pack of three condoms goes for about $1. Moreover, Kenya is going through a chronic condom shortage. Recently, Kenyan media ran a story of how people in the north of the country were recycling used condoms or resulting to using plastic bags. In Rwanda, condoms are much cheaper and more subsidized--but still expensive for many, especially young people. In my view, increasing affordability of condoms will help combat the AIDS epidemic.

Another problem is false but predominant assumption is that young people are not sexually active. I say false because research has shown that the opposite is true. According to a recent behavioral study in Rwanda, about 40% of young men and women between the ages of 15-24 are sexually active. Yet, parliament has refused to pass a bill that would staff condoms in schools.

There is also a culture of shyness on issues of sexuality. For instance, in such a place, it takes guts for a young person to enter a pharmacy to buy condoms. The young people I have spoken with express this concern as well. They are afraid of possible embarrassment and this prevents them from buying condoms. Promoting an open culture, where people can discuss sexual issues without fear or shame is important as well.

There is still an unrealistic romantization of religion. Speaking as a christian my self, the church should not continue burying their heads. It is time to speak out. I know that some church leaders do not think it is their role to advice on condom use. Some even continue to claim that AIDS is the appropriate punishment for sinners. Thus, I recognize that this is a controversial issue. The reality facing is though, is that people are dying and in huge numbers. AIDS has not spared Christians either. Faith is important, but the galling reality facing us cannot be ignored or wished away.

The number of people close to me that have died of AIDS continues to increase. But in rural Rwanda, there is widespread belief in witchcraft. People die of AIDS but the blame is placed on witches. Part of the reason is the stigma attached to AIDS. Even if one knows that their relative died of AIDS, it is often much convenient to blame it on witchcraft. This kills the debate on AIDS and enables people to continue living in denial.

There is a lot of progress in the fight against AIDS. Church related organizations such as World Relief, for instance, have played a big role in increasing treatment and providing social support for AIDS victims. However, much more can still be done.

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