Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Population

KENYA-POPULATION: Church Burns Condoms and AIDS Materials

Lynne Muthoni Wanyeki

NAIROBI, Sep 5 1996 (IPS) - The public burning of condoms and AIDS- awareness material in a ceremony presided over by the head of the Catholic church in Kenya has highlighted the deep divisions within this East African country on how to fight HIV/AIDS.

The burning ceremony, held last weekend, preceded a ‘Silent Pro- Life March’ led by Cardinal Maurice Otunga and it was held under the theme of ‘Choose Chastity: 100 percent safe’.

Posters advertising the event outlined the cardinal’s position on the fight against the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) and other family planning issues.

‘It is immoral to teach family life education in schools’; ‘Sex education is not the cure for AIDS, abstinence and fidelity are’, said some of the posters. Others proclaimed: ‘No legalisation of abortion, it is murder’; ‘More contraceptives, more abortions’ and ‘Trust condoms, trust death’.

This was not the first such event by the church in Kenya. In August 1995, Otunga and a Muslim leader, the Imam of the Jamia mosque here, presided over a similar burning ceremony.

Local AIDS awareness and support groups have kept silent on Otunga’s actions. Since the church commands great respect here and is also influential, few individuals or organisations appear willing to take it on.

“Our role is not to confront anyone,” said Esther Gatua, project manager of the Kenya NGO/AIDS Consortium. “However, we would like to correct wrong impressions and information.”

“People are individuals and have the right to make their own decisions about AIDS prevention and to make those choices,” added Gatua, whose organisation is an umbrella for over 250 AIDS awareness, prevention and support groups. “They need information.”

The AIDS awareness materials burnt over the weekend were originally produced by the Consortium to answer that need for information.

They included ‘Peter and Jane Discuss AIDS with Auntie Mary’, a booklet aimed at primary school children and ‘Life, Love and AIDS’, a drama aimed at adult couples available in both English and Kiswahili.

Both booklets were created by several local NGOs as the outcome of a two-year long educational materials workshop conducted by the Programme for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH)-Kenya.

Besides targetting primary school children and adult couples, the booklets were aimed also at the youth and men.

According to AIDS activists, a great deal of care and time went into the research, drafting and testing for appropriate language and messages.

For example, in ‘Peter and Jane Discuss AIDS with Auntie Mary’, the choice of the aunt as the educator was made to reconcile traditional sex education methods of Kenyan cultures in which older family members were charged with instruction of the young, with the Christian position that parents be educators of their children on sexuality.

Some AIDS activists are therefore now angered, calling the burning “inflammatory and irresponsible”, because of its likely negative impact on AIDS awareness work.

Activists are also concerned given the growing culture of violence in Kenya and the burning’s implication that a violent response to disagreement is acceptable.

“We have freedom of speech, as the Catholic church does but this is a secular country,” said Florence Mhonie, Executive Director of AIDS Community Based Outreach Services (ACOBOS).

“I just don’t believe that (Otunga) would throw a book in the fire and burn it because he disagreed with it. In the old days, Christians used to be burnt. This is persecuting the truth,” added Mhonie who was involved in the booklets’ writing and production.

“We support the ABC of safer sex — A for abstinence, B for being faithful and C for condom use,” she said of the materials.

“The Catholic Church say they’re pro-life — we’re equally pro- life by promoting the use of condoms. Is there no instance in which they feel the use of condoms is acceptable? Condoms can also allow couples to stay together sexually, for example, when one partner has contracted HIV and the other hasn’t.”

The outright dismissal of condom-use as an option for safer-sex also has specific implications for women. AIDS activists are concerned about the impact of the burnings on women’s ability to insist on condom-use even within long-term relationships.

According to the Consortium, young Kenyan women between the ages of 19 and 24 are particularly vulnerable, showing double the rate of HIV-infection of young men.

“Women are bearing the burden of AIDS in this country and prohibiting condom-use endangers women by lessening their ability to control their own sexuality and keep safe,” said Donna Pido, a private consultant who also worked on the production of the materials.

“We say the Catholic church is conservative when it comes to sexuality, but we really mean misogynist. It seems to me that it thrives on disadvantaging women,” Pido added.

But not all Catholics supported the burning or its messages. The Kenya Catholic Secretariat, for example, is an active member of the Consortium. A member of the Secretariat, who only gave her name as Ms Wanjohi, told IPS that it was “not involved in that(the weekend burning)”.

A 1994 study, ‘AIDS Prevention and Kenya’s Churched Youth: A Statement of Knowledge, Attitudes and Practices’, done by an international Christian organisation, the Medical Aid Programme (MAP), showed that 49 percent of Kenyan Christian youth aged 12 to 24 are sexually active.

AIDS activists believe that the Catholic church may soon no longer be able to ignore this reality.

“The Catholic church has always been against sex education and family planning, but individual Catholics are making their own choices because they’re the ones feeling the pains, the scourge of AIDS,” said Gatua.

“The Secretariat has been a strong supporter of the Consortium and we don’t dwell on differing principles — we try to deal with the real issues at hand.

“The youth are actually crying out for help and information on STDs and HIV/AIDS,” she continued. “If even church-going youth are engaging in sex and preaching is not stopping them, then the church has to deal with it.”

Gatua added that the church must do a lot more than just talk and burn AIDS awareness materials.

“If the Catholic church feels abstinence is the way to go, let it develop strategies to make abstinence work and be effective. I would like to see that rather than in-fighting and confrontation.”

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