Monday, November 20, 2006

Perspectives on Condom use in Zambia and the U.S.

I’m Steve Halliday.

During the month of July, 2006 I had the opportunity, along with several other Davidson students, to travel to Mwandi, Zambia with the Davidson Biology department. As a part of this trip I had to research and write a paper on the effectiveness of education in preventing HIV/AIDS. Through my experience in the local classrooms, and interviews with hospital workers and community members I realized that the level of HIV awareness and the general knowledge of the disease was very high, but for some reason seemed to have relatively little effect in preventing HIV transmission.

While there are obviously many factors that contribute to this problem, such as abject poverty and lack of access to healthcare, I found that one factor that may play a very large role are the adverse attitudes towards condom use in the community.

The town of Mwandi, which is largely centered around a mission compound, is very Christian. Most everyone in town attends religious services at least once a week, and the mission hospital is the only Western medical institution in the area. While the mission is affiliated with a protestant church, it is still a quite conservative Christian faith, and officially the church does not advocate condom use, except between monogamous married couples. As a result of this the hospital is not supposed to distribute condoms to patients, and it presents a major conflict of interest in the counseling they can offer.

The actual opinions on condom use vary substantially from person to person, based on personal views as well as what they’ve seen in their line of work. For example, the head clinical officer openly advocates condom use, and distributes them as often as he can receive shipments from the ministry of health. But at the same time, he does not believe that condoms should be talked about or distributed to children because he believes it will increase promiscuity.

Condom use is taught in school, but with the caveat that they are not very effective, and the only real way to protect yourself is through abstinence and monogamy. This creates an attitude where condom use is not thought of seriously, and when a child becomes sexually active they are less likely to use a condom.

These attitudes toward condom use are detrimental to public health, and severely decrease the effectiveness of HIV prevention. These attitudes aren’t limited to Mwandi, to Zambia, or even to Africa, but are common throughout the world. The main scapegoat for spreading this sentiment is the Catholic church, which is opposed to condom use on the grounds that premarital and extramarital sex are sins, and the now less common belief
that married couples should only have sex for the purpose of procreating. The Catholic church is certainly not the only organization at fault though, as even the current administration of the United States supports abstinence only education.

This idea of abstinence only education is destructive to sexual education, and contributes to the spread of STDs and unwanted pregnancies, and needs to be abolished worldwide. Condom use should be taught in all schools as a viable means of protection from HIV and STDs should a person decide to have sex, because it has been shown time and time again that simply telling people not to have sex doesn’t work. With the lack of a cure for HIV in the foreseeable future prevention is clearly the most important action that must
be taken, and education centered around safe sex needs to play a central role in prevention policy, along with social welfare programs and the empowerment of women.

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