A storm in Bangkok Editorial
Stabroek News
July 17, 2004

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A spirited debate erupted at the International AIDS conference in Bangkok, Thailand a few days ago over America's support of HIV/AIDS fight policies which lean heavily towards sexual abstinence as opposed to universal condom distribution. But that was not the start, nor will it be the end of the abstinence/condom debate. That particular battle has been ongoing between the church and the secular community long before Bangkok and years before HIV/AIDS emerged as a serious threat to humanity.

The US did not come over as being completely opposed to condom distribution, but championed Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni's statement that abstinence was the best way to stem the pandemic, which started the storm in Bangkok. "We must learn from his leadership in the fight against AIDS," ," Global AIDS Coordinator and head of the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (Pepfar) Randall Tobias said of Museveni. "Abstinence works... being faithful works... condoms work. Each has its place." The US's 'ABC' policy is abstinence, be faithful and condoms "where appropriate".

Apart from promoting this policy in its HIV/AIDS programmes, the current administration has spent significant funds on abstinence education in US schools, though these programmes have mainly been targeted at preventing and reducing the incidence of teenage pregnancy. Health educators are quoted as being upbeat about this programme and others such as the 'Silver Ring Thing' in which teens wear a silver ring like a wedding ring to symbolize their vow of chastity and as a constant reminder that they've actually made a decision about this; and 'True Love Waits', which is actually a pledge to wait until they are married to have sex. These and other similar programmes have also received government funding and have seen record numbers of young people signing on.

However, representatives of United Nations agencies and British and European Union officials have taken a pragmatic stance on the issue. While they support abstinence and fidelity and believe they should be encouraged, they also feel that cognisance must be taken of the fact that in some instances, people particularly women lack the power to say no. They say policy makers must also take note of the reality that people can and will continue to make their own decisions about their sex lives. It is for this reason that they support universal access to condoms.

What is important, particularly at this level, is for it to be recognised that regardless of the differences in opinion, unity is needed if there is to be any significant success in the global war against the epidemic. As Tobias said: "HIV/AIDS is the real enemy. The denial, stigma and complacency that fuel HIV/AIDS - these too are the real enemies. It is morally imperative that we direct our energies at these enemies, not at one another."

Here in Guyana, strides were made in this area when the Central Islamic Organisation of Guyana (CIOG) signed a memorandum of agreement with the government on Thursday, making it the first faith-based organisation to tackle HIV/AIDS in a major way. The Muslim body will provide education, promote awareness and shortly, offer voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) for HIV. Kudos to CIOG for taking such a bold step.

What is even more admirable, is that it has pledged to open its centres to both Muslims and non-Muslims and to provide ongoing support, rather than referring its clients to other agencies. This will call for significant human and financial resources, since HIV tends to thrive among the poor and disadvantaged.

Minister of Health Dr Leslie Ramsammy said at the signing ceremony that his ministry has been in discussions with other religious organisations as well. It is hoped that they too will soon hear the clarion call and publicly join the fight.