Pope Benedict is representing the Catholic Church on visits to Cameroon and Angola.
Although the Vatican website describes his visit as an ‘Apostolic Journey’, with his itinerary including meetings with high-level political and Episcopal figures, it is the Pontiff’s continuing controversial message regarding HIV/AIDS that has attracted the most international attention.
A staunch proponent of sexual abstinence and marital monogamy, the Pope has said that HIV/AIDS is “a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which can even increase the problem”.
Speaking to journalists en route to Cameroon, he said that a Christian ‘can never remain silent’ and that the solution to the pandemic lies in a “spiritual and human awakening” and “friendship for those who suffer”.
Rebecca Hodes, Head of Policy, Communication and Research, at the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) expressed the organisation’s anger at these comments.
‘The Pope is correct that condoms are not the sole solution to Africa’s AIDS epidemic,’ she said. ‘However, they are one of the very few HIV prevention mechanisms which are evidence-based – they are proven to work.’
TAC activists distribute over 500 000 condoms every month in Khayelitsha, a disadvantaged community which has traditionally seen high incidence of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. As a result of the TAC’s distributions, however, medical officials in the area have reported a decline in sexually transmitted infections.
Hodes explained that millions of rands have been spent on sexual abstinence campaigns in South Africa, but that ‘with over 1,000 new HIV infections daily in South Africa alone, it is increasingly apparent that current prevention strategies have failed and continue to fail’.
The Papal schedule lists a meeting with youth on Saturday March 21st in Luanda, Angola. The BBC has reported that the Pope is likely to speak to young people about AIDS and about the Catholic stance of abstinence being the best preventative measure.
This would echo a speech he made to African bishops in 2005, in which he said that abstinence and monogamy ‘ rather than condoms ‘ were the best method of tackling the AIDS epidemic.
In response, Rebecca Hodes highlighted the importance of considering gendered power imbalances and the socio-eonomic context which fuels HIV infection rates.
‘Preaching abstinence to many communities in Africa is alienating and irrelevant,’ Hodes said. ‘Many, many women in Africa only know co-erced and transactional sex. To instruct these women to abstain from sex or to remain faithful to only one partner demonstrates an alarming and pernicious ignorance of their sexual realities.’
The TAC suggests that the Pope, who is reported to have said that he wanted to ‘wrap his arms around the entire continent’, with “its painful wounds, its enormous potential and hopes”, could make a more practical contribution to the global struggle with HIV/AIDS.
‘If the Pope is serious about preventing new HIV infections, and about saving the lives of people living with HIV,’ Hodes said, ‘He will focus instead on promoting wide access to condoms and femidoms, and on disseminating information on how best to use these. He will also devote much more time to raising funds and spreading awareness about antiretroviral drugs and their potent potential for HIV prevention’.
She concluded by saying that, ‘His opposition to condoms conveys that religious dogma is more important to him than the lives of Africans’.