Two issues feature prominently in the day to day conversations of ordinary Rwandans. The first is the trauma of war and the heart-wrenching loss of both material and human life. The second is the seemingly immutable fear associated with AIDS.
During last year's Word AIDS Day, I argued that the limited access to condoms use remains as one of the major impediments to the war against AIDS in Africa. To support this point, I alluded to a documentary by a Kenyan TV station, which showed the challenges that pastrolist communities face due to chronic shortages of condoms. Even when available in the market, condoms are often quite unaffordable for Africa's poor. Lastly, I argued that societal beliefs against condom use had to change or at least be challenged in order to curb the spread of AIDS.
One year later, the main question remains. Are we winning against AIDS?
While we have made some considerable progress in raising awareness on the disease, which is in deed commendable, the situation is still quite alarming. In Uganda, which for many years has been hitting the headlines as a success story in controlling the AIDS epidemic, the battle is being lost.
According to Uganda's National HIV indicator survey, there has been an increase in the rate of new infections primarily among women. Professor Vinand Nantulya argues that , if the situation is not checked, there will be 700,000 new infections for the next five years, which includes an estimated 25,000 infections among new born babies. This is truly alarming!
Fishing communities and commercial sex workers are identified as some of the most affected. It is also stated that the most vulnerable tend to lack access to HIV services.
I have lost a number of relative, close friends and neighbors due to this horrible disease. Yet, if one were to believe the rumors that makes rounds in my Kigali neighborhood, you would think that everyone is infected. The fear of AIDS is always palpable among the people I talk to. There is no doubt that AIDS is one of the most salient issues.
The fear has a positive aspect to it. There is the feeling that AIDS is a collective burden. This has in turn galvanized communal support for HIV patients. I know of several women groups ( mostly church goers) who prepare meals and deliver them to random HIV patients.This has also, almost ended, the stigma that AIDS carriers face.
However, there is still a reluctance to embrace condom use as a strategy to control new infections. I am constantly hearing young people being advised to "change their ways" and focus on abstinence as a solution. This is indisputably the ideal situation--but the reality tends work the other way. Young people are having sex--and at a very tender age. While this is fact that we may not like, it is a fact that we have to live with.
I used to be one of those abstinence only campaigners (myself, being a christian). With time, I have come to the realization that the strategy is ineffective and that, if we truly care about saving lives, we need to be a little bit more honest in the way we handle reality. Yes, handling out condoms to the youths might encourage promiscuity but this should not derail the overall goal of saving lives.
The other point to consider is that the poor are the obvious victims of AIDS. Aid agencies as well as governments need to boost HIV services among the poorest. And, yes, this should include condom provision too.
A few months ago, Jacob Zuma, the South African president suggested offering free condoms to pubescent pupils. While he got heavily criticized by folks who argue that condoms access will prompt the youths to have more sex, I believe he was up to something. One can only hope that such a bold stand by Zuma will open room for a more impassioned debate on this issue.