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Meanwhile, What about the Women and Children?

Apr 3 2009

On March 18, my friend Tim Morgan posted an article on Christianity Today's Liveblog called "Why the Pope Is Right about Condoms and HIV in Africa." "You can't resolve [the AIDS crisis] with the distribution of condoms," the pope told reporters aboard the plane heading to Yaound?. "On the contrary, it increases the problem."

Maybe the pope had to say that. He's a spiritual leader, and it's his job description to hold up the ideal, no matter how difficult it may be to fulfill in real life. Certainly sexual abstinence and fidelity are the best ways to prevent the spread of HIV. But such either-or idealism may be harmful to millions of people whose morality is exactly what the pope prescribes - the faithful wives and innocent children of HIV-infected men.

According to international AIDS charity Avert, in 2007, 22 million people were living with AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. Only 37 percent of these were men (defined by the survey as males over the age of 15). Women made up 55 percent of the total, and children the other 8 percent. Another grim statistic: 11.6 million children under the age of 18 had lost one or both parents to AIDS.

Granted, condom promotion alone will not stop AIDS. People don't use condoms consistently. African men have strongly resisted using them at all, especially in long-term though non-monogamous relationships. And because many African men must work far from their wives and children for days and even months at a time, multiple families are very common. "HIV, many experts now believe, is spreading through interlinked sexual networks," wrote Nicole Itano in the December 1, 2008, Christian Science Monitor. "And what's needed is a concerted effort to educate people about the dangers of multiple partnerships."

In a March 29 Washington Post article, "The Pope May Be Right," Edward C. Green, director of the Harvard AIDS Prevention Research Project, quoted researchers who concluded that "consistent condom use has not reached a sufficiently high level, even after many years of widespread and often aggressive promotion, to produce a measurable slowing of new infections in the generalized epidemics of Sub-Saharan Africa." In a Christianity Today interview with Morgan, Green advocates for "promotion of monogamy and fidelity, and male circumcision" as the most effective public policy measures.

But moving from the statistical to the personal, what about the wife and mother who stays in the village to care for her family while her husband goes off to a distant city to work? Estelle, a friend who has worked for a relief organization in several African countries, points out that an African woman does not generally have the option to "just say no," to insist that her partner use a condom, or to leave him and support herself. How can she and her children protect themselves from AIDS if he is not 100 percent faithful to her?

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Meanwhile, What about the Women and Children?