Pope's Views On Condoms Scrutinized In Africa

There has been widespread international reaction to Pope Benedict’s recent comments approving condom use to curb the spread of HIV. In Africa, which has both a raging HIV/AIDS pandemic and a growing number of Catholics, the groundbreaking statements were welcomed. Host Allison Keyes speaks with Zambian AIDS activist Felix Mwanza, of the Advocacy and Literacy Coalition, about the implications of the pontiff’s remarks for the fight against AIDS in the predominately Catholic Southern African nation.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

Some activists call recent statements from the Vatican a breakthrough on the HIV/AIDS fronts as well. Pope Benedict is quoted in a new book suggesting that the threat of HIV could outweigh the Catholic Church's opposition to the use of condoms. The comments sparked widespread reaction.

In Africa, which has a raging HIV/AIDS pandemic and growing numbers of Catholics, the groundbreaking comment was welcomed by many. The Pope's words and clarifications from the Vatican just yesterday, were a sharp departure from Benedict's comments during a visit to Africa last year when he said that distributing condoms may actually increase the HIV problem there.

More than 20 million Africans are believed to be HIV positive and nearly 20 percent of the continent's 1 billion people are Catholic.

I'm joined now by Felix Mwanza, an AIDS activist with the Treatment Advocacy and Literary Coalition in Zambia. He's in the capital. Thanks so much, sir, for joining us.

Mr. FELIX MWANZA (AIDS Activist, Treatment Advocacy and Literary Coalition): Thank you very much.

KEYES: I wonder if you can tell us, Zambia is a majority Catholic country, how are the comments being received there?

Mr. MWANZA: This could not be a better gift. And as far as HIV and AIDS officials are concerned, we found that it was a bit problematic to discuss the issue of the condoms in churches. But the announcements from the pontiff actually have given us encouragement to do our work in churches.

KEYES: Are you expecting the Catholic Church to be more involved now in promoting the use of condoms to prevent HIV infection?

Mr. MWANZA: Naturally, when the leader speaks, then the rest of the people are supposed to take that particular directive. In this particular regard, we are hopeful that the rest of the Catholic clergy are going to pick up this particular matter and systematically start, you know, talking about this particular issue in the various, you know, sections of their churches.

KEYES: But I hear that there's been some confusion about the comments there. I've read that some churches support them and some are insisting theres been no change in Vatican policy. Is that confusing to the Catholic people?

Mr. MWANZA: Yeah. It could be a bit confusing, but the truth of the matter is that those are the words that were coming from the pontiff himself. I know there could be conservatives in some other circles. But right now I think sticking our heads into sand is not going to help. You know, condoms have been proven to be very, you know, essential tools of prevention of HIV and AIDS.

And, also, they've been proven to be very good too, you know, as far as prevention of unplanned pregnancies. So we're hopeful that the change are going to turn this particular statement from the pontiff with both hands and roll it down every, you know, section of their congregations.

KEYES: You've been working in church communities there and on AIDS awareness and prevention programs. How have people in Zambia been reacting to the idea of condoms?

Mr. MWANZA: Well, I think it was a bit of a problem initially because a church is supposed to be a sacred place. And when you talk about condoms, everyone will just go, whoah. But, look, right now, I think that things have started changing. When you talk about the condoms and there is effectiveness as far as prevention of HIV, the church have started changing. And I think they have started embracing this particular idea.

We have some church groups that have been honoring condoms through our organization and this is an indication that they have started taking the message well.

KEYES: I ran across a 2003 study and an article from 2008 that suggests that the use of condoms doesn't help all that much as a primary HIV prevention in Africa, partly because not enough people are using them and partly because a lot of the people in Africa that are being infected are in steady relationships already and people don't use them as much in steady relationships. Is that true?

Mr. MWANZA: Yeah. I think that is very true because when people are in a steady relationship, they don't see the need of using a condom. But on the contrary, those few people that have been using the condoms, right now they're HIV negative - an indication that condoms really work.

KEYES: OK. And now that the Pope has said this, are you looking forward to people being more willing to use condoms and helping to make the rate of HIV/AIDS go down?

Mr. MWANZA: Yes. That's the idea. And we are also actually calling on other churches apart from the Catholic Church to start talking about the issue of the using of condoms within their church circles.

KEYES: And really briefly, sir, how serious is the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Zambia right now? How many people are infected?

Mr. MWANZA: Well, Zambia is ranked number seven in the world. And about one million people actually living with HIV infection. And that presents a rate of 14.3 percent. So the country is very much affected in as far as the HIV and AIDS pandemic is concerned.

KEYES: OK. We'll check back with you and see how this is going in the coming months.

Felix Mwanza is an AIDS activist with Treatment Advocacy and Literary Coalition in Zambia. He joined us on the line from the capital. Thank you so much for being with us.

Mr. MWANZA: Thank you. You're welcome.

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