- guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 17 March 2009 18.00 GMT
Pope Benedict XVI has reiterated the Vatican’s policy that condoms do not solve the HIV/AIDS problem currently debilitating much of the African continent. The pope is visiting Cameroon and Angola on his week-long trip.
Angola is one of the few African countries in which AIDS has not yet become a massive “problem”. This is because visiting the country and gaining access to its interior has been severely restricted as it recovers from its 27-year-long civil war. The war has meant that there is a serious lack of infrastructure in the country. Coupled with the fact that no major trade routes have yet been established with Angola, the situation is one of mixed blessings. Although the consequence has been economic and social under-development, making it yet another unremarkable African country, it has also meant that AIDS rates are very low. This is not a blessing that will last forever.
The country’s president, José Eduardo dos Santos, is on the path to ensuring that the country takes up the mantle as one of Africa’s fastest-developing nations. Should he achieve his goals, trade routes will open fast and more and more people will be allowed into the country. If Angola is not equipped with a solid AIDS prevention policy that includes the use of condoms at its core, it will quickly follow in the footsteps of countries like Swaziland and South Africa where AIDS/HIV rates are the highest on the continent.
The Vatican policy on the prevention of HIV/AIDS is that abstinence is the best cure. There is little to no documentation on countries that have been successful in preventing the virus using abstinence as a primary policy tool. Uganda, which has probably tackled HIV more effectively than other African countries, has made condom use its main policy on the issue.
The problem with the Vatican and Pope Benedict’s policy on AIDS prevention goes beyond policy recommendations and mechanisms. Were these statements coming from a politician, as they did in the US under the Bush administration, the situation would not be so severe. The policies of foreign countries can be taken or left or they can be got around by policy manoeuvrings. When the pope expresses such views, they has an impact that goes beyond the theatre of politics.
According to the Vatican, in 2006, 17% of the African population were Catholics. More than this, Africa is a continent that is heavily religious and, south of the Sahara, largely Christian. Some belong to the Catholic church, many are Anglicans, but all take their belief in God very seriously. What the pope says will reach and matter to more than a mere 17% of Africans.
The Vatican’s stance is not simply irresponsible; it is immoral. African countries, as some of the most under-developed in the world, will arguably suffer the worst consequences of the “new” global challenges – climate change and the global economic downturn. The “old” ones also have not gone anywhere – severe poverty, malaria, the brain-drain, poor health, education and infrastructure, bad and corrupt leadership, civil war and genocide.
The last thing Africans need is to be told that religion, the last vessel of hope for many, demands that they ignore one of the very few things they are able to do to help themselves.