Dr Lydia Mungherera of the National Forum of People Living with HIV/AIDS in
Uganda commended Museveni for attending the conference and for his leadership on issues of HIV/AIDS, but said she was concerned about the President’s moral stance.
“People are dying whatever morals they have”, Mungherera said.
“They are living with HIV/AIDS and they are dying. So, we should focus our attention on the issue of saving people who are dying from the pandemic and keep our eyes away from issues of morals… In that way we lose the point that we are trying to do, which is to save people’s lives because people are dying of the disease,” she added.
In his address on Monday, Museveni said his country reduced its HIV prevalence rate from 30% among certain sections of the population to 6% among adults in the general
population largely through creative communication campaigns that exhorted young citizens to abstain from sex until they were married and for sexual partners to remain faithful to each other.
He said that condom distribution was not the ultimate solution. ‘Condoms may be alright,’ he said, adding that those who advocated the use of condoms assumed that people were sober when they had sex. ‘But many people are drunk when they have sex and they do not put on condoms,’ said Museveni.
He described AIDS as a moral, social and economic problem, which affects people who engage in undisciplined sex.
Milly Katana, the Advocacy Officer of the Health Rights Action Group in Uganda explained that to have effective prevention results, there is a need for a scaled-up ‘ABC strategy,’ not a reduced one.
“It’s not okay to be prescriptive that this is the best prevention tool or prevention strategy. Our people should be given all the information and choose for themselves. We know it (condoms) has worked in Uganda. There is no science to warrant us to change this strategy. There is no evidence that condoms are not useful to prevent HIV infection and other sexually transmitted
Beatrice Were, who lives with HIV and a representative of Action Aid-Uganda, cautioned that Museveni’s remarks were misleading to Asia, the region hosting this year’s AIDS conference.
She said ‘the expectations of this region are to learn from Africa.’ And she asked ‘what are the lessons are we bringing to this region?’
She responded that ‘we are bringing lessons which are not backed by scientific data. We are bringing shock to the region. And for me, this is a major concern… Even when we advocate for antiretroviral therapy, condoms still remain relevant. They are relevant in a situation of prevention. They are also relevant in a situation where people are on treatment.’
Drawing from personal experiences, Were said ‘for those of us who have used condoms in our lives, who know that they are indispensable in our lives because we are infected, this is something we can attest to because this is our sexual lives everyday. The signal coming out makes us feel excluded as people living with HIV. For me, personally, I feel we are not being
focussed on as sexual human beings. It’s very unfair to deny us our rights and not to
allow us choices.’
Ms Were expressed concern that Museveni was making a U-turn in his AIDS policies and alluded that there could be US forces bearing down on President Museveni, which place stringent conditions on grants approved for AIDS services in Africa, conditions which favour prevention programmes based on aspects of ‘abstinence’ and ‘being faithful’.
She said ‘AIDS has become very political. It is being used as political platform by the US government. And I think that the Bush administration is not being fair to Africa and to the dying numbers of people… For Museveni to come out at this point in time to say what is politically correct for the United States is selling your citizens. And I feel sold by my President.
This is meant for Bush. It is not meant for me. It is meant to make Bush happy… Our leaders have got to be strong and feel for us and not sell us.’
The sentiment was also felt by Rev. Canon Gideon Byamugisha, the first cleric in Africa to declare his HIV status. He said Museveni, the only African head of state to attend the Bangkok conference, ‘would rather have stayed away’ than to have come to ‘sell his country.’
Uganda is known as the success story of AIDS reduction. But activists warn against the ‘over-celebration’ of this achievement.
‘We have a 6%, or higher, prevalence rate at the moment,’ she said. But ‘this is like yeast. If you added one spoon of yeast it will make a whole drum turn into alcohol. This is bad
enough. The so-called success story is not correct. It’s making our people go back to their comfort zones of thinking that we can now act as moralists and we shall turn the tide against HIV/AIDS’, said Uganda’s Health Rights Action Group, Milly Katana.
E-mail Khopotso Bodibe