Kenyan religious leaders are outraged by a condom advert, while HIV activists are astonished at the ‘denial of reality’.
Controversy over an advert on condom use to prevent HIV among married couples led by a cross section of Kenyan religious leaders has left many HIV activists astonished at the ‘denial of reality’.
As a journalist and an HIV activist, I was shocked by the withdrawal of the advert after members of the Anglican Church and the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya claimed it was promoting promiscuity and infidelity rather than preventing HIV.
The TV advert, dubbed “weka condom mpangoni” (“include a condom in your planning”) sponsored by the Ministry of Public Health and USAID was tailored to educate millions of married or cohabiting couples on the importance of using condoms to avoid getting infected or infecting their sexual partners should they engage in extra-marital affairs.
Watch the advert
Derailing health campaign
This advert set to run on TV had the potential to meet thousands of people all across the country with an important message. However, it was completely misconstrued by religious leaders to mean that extra marital affairs were allowed with the use of condoms.
Their ignorance of the real issue at stake has resulted in the health aspect being overshadowed as they embrace sexual morality as a topic, completely derailing the health campaign. How sad this comes from the very religious leaders who should otherwise be using their mass congregations as platforms to educate people on HIV prevention! With this kind of resistance to education, it is no wonder, Kenya ranked 4th in HIV prevalence in 2014.
While Kenya social media went wild condemning the advert saying that it was aired in the early evening when most families were watching TV with their children, and that the advert was inappropriate for children below 10years, I believe the ministry’s intention was to give the families an opportunity to discuss the importance of prevention at household level. It is critical that this starts to happen, especially when reports indicate that married couples account for the highest percentage of HIV prevalence in Kenya.
Condom use in Kenya
As I listened to the argument and the condemnation of the educative advert I could not help but notice the advert’s HIV significant message being down-trodden in favour of sexual morality which the religious sects would have addressed in their respective platforms.
The Ministry of Public Health’s objective was to tackle the health issue relating to HIV prevention in Kenya and the clergy shouldn’t have married it with moral issues because ultimately, it distorted the health message. Had the clergy not interfered with it, the message would have reached millions of Kenyans and would have benefited even the youth and people already living with HIV.
Whether you are married or not, using condoms in Kenya is challenging for most people as it carries the weight of stigma and many shy from buying them from shops. Gladys (name changed) a married woman who admits having an extra marital affair tells me that sometimes she and her lover opt to have unprotected sex for fear of stigma in the community if anyone saw them buying condoms. “With or without the advert, thousands of married people have extra marital affairs and the clergy should not bury their heads in the sand. They should team up with the government to promote the prevention campaign,” she asserts.
Seeking solutions for HIV education
A study carried out in Kisumu County within western Kenya revealed that infidelity is among the major factors that could reverse the gains made in HIV prevention and management. With such findings it would beat anyone’s understanding why any leader, whether religious or otherwise, would thwart education that can save Kenya from being among the leading countries in HIV prevalence worldwide. With many households at least owning either a TV or a radio, the prevention message would have been carried effectively across the country.
Even as the world focuses on the post-2015 development agenda where ensuring healthy lives and reducing diseases such as HIV is a priority, there’s a risk that such level of denial and resistance to civic education will slow if not reverse the gains made so far in tackling HIV.
Peter Cherutich, head of theNational Aids and STI Control Programme, said in an earlier interview with members of the press that he was shocked by the stiff opposition to the advert at a time when Kenya was eager to reduce new HIV infections. “The public is over-reacting and I appeal for support and understanding from religious leaders,” he said.
But for now, with the withdrawal of the advert, I’m left wondering if there are any better methodsthat will not face opposition. We need to find effective ways to educate and persuade people across our country of the importance of preventing HIV.If anyone has any bright ideas, I’m all ears!
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