In the News 2013
Daily Nation

Numbers that drive the bold campaigns for condom use

When Chinua Achebe’s book — A Man of the People — was being studied in Kenyan high schools in 2004 as one of the examinable literature texts, a war of words ensued between the Catholic Church in Kenya and the panel that had selected the book. Teachers and parents joined the debate over whether the book was the right content to be studied in school.

The discussion was ignited by a scene in the book where one of Achebe’s characters, a university student nicknamed ‘Irre’, the short form of the word irresponsible, walks out of his hostel room glistening with sweat and holding a used condom. It is to prove to his friends that he has bedded the most “impossible” woman to take to bed.

Leaders of the Catholic Church did not like the scene. They voiced their objection to the book, arguing that it encouraged immorality. They also said something about family values and sex outside marriage. Nonetheless, the book, parents, and the teachers won.

In the same year (2004), then Catholic head in Kenya, Archbishop Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki, dismissed the use of the condom as protection against HIV infection. He said during an interview: “For me, a condom is not the answer. In fact, in this country, I would say without fear that the use of condoms has been the greatest means of increasing the cases of Aids. Take our university students, students in schools of higher studies, where condoms are available upon demand. It’s like saying, ‘my son or daughter, you are free.’ And they do it.”

Two years later during a religious leader’s conference, Archbishop Ndingi urged the government to ban advertising and distribution of condoms. His reasons where that the easy access to them encouraged promiscuity.

Catholic leaders in the country have since remained adamant on their stand about the use of condoms. It is a big No for them, but a section of the faithful, as explored yesterday in our sister publication, Lifestyle, is rebelling. It is not that they haven’t been, only that this time round, the boldness by which they are doing so is out there for all to see.

It comes through a lobby group going by the name Catholics for Choice (CFC), and the huge billboards they erected recently in the country to urge Catholics to use condoms as a preventive mechanism against HIV. “Good Catholics Use Condoms,” screamed the message.

Based in the US, Catholics for Choice describe themselves as “part of the great majority of the faithful in the Catholic Church who disagree with the dictates of the Vatican on matters related to sex, marriage, family life, and motherhood”.

The message they put up on the billboards could have rubbed Catholic leaders in the country the wrong way, but the lobby group insists that their stand is pegged on realities around the trends in the HIV figures and the huge numbers that make the Catholic community.

Some statistics were displayed recently after another controversial condom campaign, Weka Condom Mpangoni, was criticised by men of the cloth in general, and not only Catholic leaders.

The campaign was sponsored by Population Services International (PSI). The message, loosely translated as “have the condom in mind”, was directed at married couples. It was to advise them to always have a condom at hand should they be tempted to go astray.

Religious leaders, both Christian and Muslim, criticised it for promoting infidelity and for make a joke of the sacred institution of marriage. They demanded for its withdrawal from the television screens.

In response, the promoters explained that the campaign was informed by the reality that as much as messages against infidelity were important and had indeed been delivered in a previous campaign under the theme Wacha mpango wa kando (stop extra-marital affairs), about 44 per cent of all new HIV infections in the country occurred in stable relationships, including marriage.

In comparison, commercial sex contributed just about 14 per cent of new infections. The Kenya National Aids Epidemic 2012 Update further indicated that casual sex, such as one-night stands, accounted for about 20 per cent of new HIV infections. The same report stated that 45 per cent of married couples were discordant.

Dr Patrick Mureithi of the National Aids Control Council (NACC), speaking in the wake of the furore created by Weka Condom Mpangoni advert, said: “Kenya is at an annual 100,000 new infections rate.” If 44 per cent of these are occurring in stable relationships such as in marriage, the absolute figure comes to 44,000 new infections in such relationships.

These are the figures that inform the bold campaigns to reduce the levels of HIV infection in the country, and which promote the use of condoms as the most accessible prevention mechanism.

Because the religious community, and more so the Catholic Church, has been adamant on its stand against condom use, the latest campaign by Catholics for Choice is a deliberate move to provoke the Roman Catholic leadership with the message that a part of its flock is intent on taking a different tangent concerning sexual matters, given the reality of life and the given statistics. It is also pegged on the fact that the Catholic population is big.

There are an estimated 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in the world. The growth of Catholicism in Africa has been immense and is expected to get even higher.

In 1970, Africa had 45 million Catholics, according to World Christian data base. In 2012, the continent had 177 million Catholics, accounting for 15.2 per cent of the world’s Catholic population. These numbers define the magnitude of the stand of the Catholic Church leadership on condom use.

Preaching chastity and self-preservation until marriage, especially to the young generation, is like trying to cut a rock using a machete. Religious leaders must be aware about what is happening on the ground, but many have chosen to stick to traditional viewpoints.

The Church traces its understanding of the institution of marriage from the Bible’s book of Genesis, where God made man in his image and then created a helper from his rib to keep him company.

Marriage is a sacred union

Thus, the Church believes that marriage is a sacred union ordained by God. Sex before marriage is a definite no-no because the body is viewed as the temple of God and any sexual act committed against it is a direct affront and a disregard for what the Almighty instructs.

Sex outside marriage is condemned by the Bible as immoral in the book of Corinthians. According to papers written on the stand of the Catholic Church on these issues, the act of engaging in sexual activity outside the institution of marriage is a violation of the sacredness of the union.

It is a widely held notion within the Catholic Church that sexual interactions outside marriage are responsible for widespread unwanted pregnancies, abortions, sexually transmitted diseases, and single parenthood.

The Catholic leadership believes that by allowing its faithful to use a condom, which scientists say reduces chances of infection by about 70-80 per cent, they will have created room to be perceived as having sanctioned sex before marriage and sex outside the matrimonial confines. But what do some of the faithful think?

Johannes Mbatia is a Catholic who does all that the church requires except on the sex question. He is not married. He lives in Nairobi and, in his words, he “lives like any other young man”.

When asked what this means, he wryly smiles and says that he lives his life in a vibrant and energetic way and that means he has a girlfriend with whom, he says, he engages in protected sex.

Abstinence may be impossible for some

Admitting that the practicability of living in abstinence may be possible for some people but not him, Jack Otieno, another Catholic faithful, says he cannot force himself to take the same position as the church when he knows that it is not tenable.

At 29 and not planning to get married yet, he represents a curious group of young faithful who are both energetic and vibrant in and out of the church. This is the same group that will be most affected by the anti-condom stance of the church.

Otieno believes that if the church does not change its approach to a more accommodative one, then it runs the risk of being completely ignored by a good section of its faithful, for instance, the young generation.

“Give us the spiritual side of things but do not confine us to a particular line of action,” he says and adds: “The church should refrain from trying to decide for us. That is a personal decision and it touches directly on our safety. Why would the church want to guide me on this?”

This is the sentiment of a married Catholic man. He thinks that the church should concentrate on teaching people about infidelity and its dangers while at the same time re-invigorating the campaigns against unfaithfulness.

The stand of the Catholic Church is viewed as an unrealistic approach to life’s problems, leading to some not-so-kind words by some of its faithful, who say that be it the use of condoms or insisting on abstinence, the church should embrace what works as opposed to the ideal.

For now, however, the stand of the Catholic Church as expressed last week by John Cardinal Njue is: “The Catholic Church teaches that sex is good and sacred in the context of marriage. Thus, married couples are encouraged to be faithful in their marriage and young people are urged to remain chaste until marriage.”

This piece was originally published by the Daily Nation.

Catholics for Choice