(PlusNews) – Asha* is in a polygamous marriage, and while she would like to protect herself from HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, the message from the preachers at her local mosque in the Burundian capital, Bujumbura, is that condoms promote adultery.
« We can’t use condoms as a way of preventing AIDS in our community; only abstinence is preached in our mosques, » she said. « We [Muslims] are so exposed to the AIDS pandemic, especially because we believe in polygamy… »
The scholars at her mosque, in the predominantly Muslim suburb of Buyenzi, are keen to participate in the fight against HIV, caring for HIV-positive people and orphans in their communities and even encouraging HIV testing before marriage, but according to Asha, this advice is flawed.
« I can take HIV tests but the problem is that I can’t know that the other wife of my husband has done it or will do it; I have no right to tell her to do so, » she said. « How do you [protect yourself from HIV] when… subjected to the constraints of religion? »
Muslims make up about 10 percent of Burundi’s population; research is divided on the HIV risk posed by polygamy – some regional studies indicate that women in polygamous relationships are at higher risk of HIV, while others argue that “closed” polygamous relationships can actually protect against HIV as long as sexual relationships remain within the closed group. However, HIV policy-makers and implementers do agree on one thing – condoms should be an essential part of any effort to prevent HIV.
But Islamic scholars insist that condoms must be avoided at all costs. « Encouraging condoms in Islamic circles is a way of calling people to sexual debauchery, » said Secretary-General of the Islamic community of Burundi, El Hadj Nkunduwiga Haruna. « We ask people to be faithful and not to engage in sexual promiscuity as a means to fight AIDS. »
According to Jolie*, a non-practising Christian, poverty was often a bigger consideration than religion or HIV prevention when choosing a spouse.
« With this poverty everywhere here in Burundi, if [a woman] gets a chance to get married to a rich man who happens to be a Muslim, she can’t refuse it… thoughts of AIDS come afterwards, » she said.
« It is difficult to convince a man who wants to marry, especially when he is rich, to do HIV tests, » she added.
Muslim scholars are not the only religious leaders firmly against condom use. Father Emmanuel Gihutu, a professor of philosophy at a seminary in Gitega, east of the capital, said: « It is unthinkable that people insist on condom use in schools and even among young children, rather than teaching them to [wait] before any sexual temptation.
« I was surprised when I was rector of the seminary during a training seminar in Gitega and we were told to go and teach our students to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS with condoms. Do you believe that as a spiritual personality we can teach such things? »
« We’re so concerned about the AIDS pandemic, but we cannot teach Christians to engage in debauchery; that’s not our mission, » said Father Evode Bigirimana, rector of the Marian shrine at Mount Zion in Bujumbura. « Encouraging the faithful to use condoms is a way to encourage them in a way to indulge in carnal acts. »
Members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church have similarly strong views on the subject. « Condoms are the satanic ways to fool the gullible that AIDS can be fought by the hoods, » said Cassien Sindaye, a member. « Our condom is the sixth commandment, which prevents us from adultery. »
Condoms « integral » to HIV prevention
However, according to INERELA+, a network of religious leaders living with or personally affected by HIV/AIDS, condoms must be an integral part of any realistic HIV prevention strategy.
« The implication that the use of a condom automatically marks a person as unable to be faithful fuels stigma and acts as a disincentive to evidence-based prevention, » the organization says in its prevention model, which involves safer practices such as abstinence and condom use, counselling and testing, and empowerment and education.
Local NGOs are urging religious leaders to rethink their stance on condom use.
« We ask them to change their language because it can prevent people from using condoms to protect themselves against AIDS, and I am sure among them [religious leaders] there are those in need of condoms, » said Baselissa Ndayisaba, coordinator of the NGO, Society for Women Against AIDS in Africa. « The condom is a tool to prevent AIDS and church teachings can have negative impacts on our work. »
*Not their real names