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Churches! Whose side are you on?
Bernadette Mukonyora
June 22, 2005

"Using a condom is like walking on a tight rope" say Seventh-Day Adventists in HarareIt is becoming clearer and clearer that the Churches are fighting a losing battle in their quest to blinker the world from the reality of the HIV and AIDS situation. Their campaigns are based on the word "abstinence". This is a term loaded with moral and religious connotations of chastity, purity and avoidance – all lofty standards for erring human beings existing in 21st century Zimbabwe!

The churches risk losing their position when they insist on painting an utopist picture of the world where sexual intercourse occurs only between a couple that has been joined together in holy matrimony! Otherwise how do we explain the high prevalence of HIV and STDs in Zimbabwe, the teenage pregnancies and extra marital affairs that are becoming the ‘in thing’ in this era of the "the small house syndrome"?

Instead of advocating for the preservation of human ‘life’ and exercising ‘love’ for mankind, the churches are slowly but surely becoming public enemies through their adversarial sentiments of discouraging the use of condoms. Gone are the days when only one discourse ruled the day and dictated how people should live their lives, what they should believe and whom they should love. The postmodern world has brought with it multiple narratives and the holy Christian doctrines can be criticized and rejected when they prove a threat to human existence such as in ‘anti-condom’ campaigns.

All this furor over a thin latex sleeve made from natural rubber used to protect oneself from contracting HIV and sexually transmitted diseases makes me want to ask the Churches – "Whose side are you on?" Religious anti-condom sentiments reduce the war between morality and rationality into a simple case of life and death. Pardon me if I am biased, but I choose life.

"HIV/AIDS: Using A Condom Is Like Walking On a Tight Rope, One Slip Could Kill You" reads a big banner put up outside the Seventh Day Adventists General Conference of East Africa Division at Newlands shopping center in Harare. To say I was shocked is an understatement of my true feelings. I was overcome by feelings of dejection, loss and helplessness. How could this be? I took a second glance just to make sure I had seen it right and there it was in bold red letters on a white sheet so clear and visible so the thousands of people who use that route wouldn’t miss it. This banner was screaming out to the public to read it, comprehend it and perhaps discontinue the use of condoms in their sexual encounters in a country where almost a quarter of the adult population is infected with HIV and at least one fifth of the country’s children have lost at least one parent.

Zimbabwe has been plagued by bloodcurdling HIV/AIDS statistics in recent years and is considered to be one of the countries in the world with the highest prevalence in relation to the population. A UNICEF report estimates that almost 2 million of the Zimbabwean population is living with HIV while AVERT Organization states that 2,3 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa died of AIDS in 2004.

"By calling against condom use, the churches are encroaching in a domain that is not theirs . . . out of curiosity why haven't churches spoken against treatment of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)"says SAfAIDS Executive Director Lois Lunga.

In a country where an estimated one in three adults is living with HIV/AIDS and where sexual intercourse frequently takes place between people of widely different ages, young people in Zimbabwe are at great risk of acquiring HIV. A large number of adolescents are sexually active by their late teens while young women commonly engage in sex with older men, who, for a variety of reasons, may insist on unprotected sex. Some young men have their first sexual encounter with sex workers.

Surely, with the knowledge of these statistics, anti-condom sentiments are tantamount to ‘mass murder’? Let’s remember that two thousand five hundred people die of AIDS every week in Zimbabwe. The virus has transcended all groups in society stretching from villagers in rural areas through to urban dwellers. Funerals now occur on a daily basis and funeral homes are a big business illustrated by the burgeoning of different funeral homes established to cater for the growing death toll.

But the churches do not see this!

The moralistic approach taken by the Churches draws associations from the bible as well as from stigma associated with casual sex. One should not forget that the world is dynamic and transitional. The values of yesterday do not necessarily refer to the values of today and generation gap should not be ignored. The Zimbabwean youth of today are growing up in a world where they are exposed to sex, violence, nudity and vulgar language at a tender age. Youths lose their virginity at a very young age. It is not their fault that there are exposed to the "world" through their television screens. One cannot ignore that due to new media and information technology, the world has become a global village. Although the local broadcaster ZBC is now disseminating local content meant to instill a sense of morality into the youths, however, the local broadcaster is also responsible in the immorality discourse in the local and regional suggestive lyrics and dances that grace our screens every now and then – again – the churches must realize that the damage has already been done

We must accept the fact that the youth have casual sex and therefore potentially expose themselves to HIV/AIDS. It is our mandate to seek practical solutions that will make a difference in the lives of all Zimbabweans. Anti-condom sentiments are a death sentence because they confuse the youth, especially, as their options are limited. Abstinence is a noble suggestion but it is unrealistic.

Could it all be a fallacy, an act of fiction where good triumphs over evil? Could it be a fairytale where the villain is destroyed and the prince in shining armor saves the day? Perhaps a bad dream, which I would really like to wake up from? The thought of corpses piling up in mortuaries, those heart wrenching skeletal images of suffering children and women in areas where the disease has ravaged leaves me heartbroken.

I would like to see all those tears on people’s faces wiped away and smiles taking the place of all those frowns . . . I would like to submerge myself into this fantasy world that the Churches are creating. I would like to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to reality and continue to condemn the one thing that can save lives. I would like to ignore statistics and the smell of suffering in the terminal illness wards at Harare Hospital and Parirenyatwa Hospital and still insist that condoms should not be encouraged. I would like to ignore the fresh earth mounds sprouting up by the hour at Warren Hills and the infamous "Kumbudzi" cemeteries because of HIV/AIDS. How I would want to be consumed by such positivism and hope the rest of the Zimbabwean population also come along too. Old memories erased – the Garden of Eden relived.

But I know that this cannot be. I am incapable of suspending my disbelief and submerging myself into this fantasy world. I cannot forget and I am sure nor can many other people!

The condom debate roars on as different organizations and institutions disseminate parallel messages on condom use thus leaving the poor public confused about whether to be moralistic or to be realistic. The ultimate question being – "To use or not to use!" where one is forced to choose between following the Christian discourse and risking contraction and re infection by the HIV or by totally disregarding these moralistic discourses. The controversy around the use of condoms was sparked by claims by the Catholic Church that condoms do not stop the spread of AIDS. An online report from Good Vibrations magazines says the Church made its claims on a BBC program, Sex and the Holy City. The president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Family, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo said: "The AIDS virus is roughly 450 times smaller than the spermatozoon. The spermatozoon can easily pass through the 'net' that is formed by the condom." However scientists have shot down these claims leaving the Catholic Church hard pressed to adequately substantiate its position.

There is a notable failure by these institutions to integrate reality into their policies by accepting the dynamics of globalization and its effects on behavior. Instead of condemning them and insisting on abstinence, which is almost impossible to achieve, Churches must open their eyes and engage with reality. Meanwhile, the Seventh Day Adventist Conference President, Pastor Jonathan Nzuma responds, "We speak from a spiritual point of view and not from a scientific point of view. Anything man made is not 100 percent safe unless if it is made by God". I asked the Pastor if he drove a car and he said yes but again insisted that because it is man-made, then it is not 100 percent safe. Ironically he still uses a car as a means of transportation.

The main problem with Christian discourse of this nature is its selectivity of suitable facts and biblical quotes that would serve to provide support for any given argument. Such discourse is separatist as most preachers sift through the bible searching for suitable quotes that enhance their argument. Anti-condom sentiments stem from "though shalt not commit adultery", which seemingly give the necessary justification for these claims.

"The Churches should not confuse issues. Condom use is purely a public health issue and not a spiritual issue. If the Church had succeeded at this mandate we would be in an AIDS free society . . . Given that the church has not succeeded at that, the public health fraternity which has the mandate to ensure that the populace access sufficient treatment and prevention solutions has championed for the use of condoms to prevent HIV infection." - SAFAIDS statement

However, HIV/AIDS has become a part of our existence. The core weapon is to accept your status and to practice safe sex. The use of the condom is said to reduce the spread of HIV and STD’s by 97percent according to different studies and surveys. However, many Christian organizations choose to remain blinkered from reality by discouraging the use of condoms. One cannot ignore the level of irresponsibility being propagated by these influential institutions as they choose to stand aloof to the ideals of human existence.

*Bernadette Mukonyora is a Masters student at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in South Africa (formally University of Port Elizabeth). Her research focus is mainly on the Political Economy in Zimbabwe. The HIV and AIDS situation is another research interest. This article was sparked by a banner (on picture) which was put up at the Seventh Day Adventist General Conference of the East Africa division at Newlands Shopping Centre. The representations in the article represent my feelings and opinions towards the stance taken by churches in the fight against HIV and AIDS and how these sentiments are likely to lead to the detriment of the fight against AIDS in Zinbabwe and in the world as a whole.

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