Christian leaders in Gambia challenged a government-backed prevention campaign based on the distribution of cheap contraceptives to the country’s youth, sources said Wednesday.
“The church does not teach that condoms should be used for the prevention of HIV/AIDS or for contraceptive purposes,” said Father Edward Gomez, a well-known Catholic priest who regularly presents discussion programs on local television.
The church's reaction against condoms was triggered by an increasingly aggressive media campaign launched by the state-sponsored Gambia Social Marketing Management Program that seeks to put condoms and contraceptive pills within easy reach of all sexually active Gambians. Sources say the campaigners packaged condoms and pills in “chocolate-style” packs that are sold inexpensively under the brand names of “cool” and “kairo.”
At an Advocacy and Effective Behavior Change Techniques workshop held in the city of Banjul last week Gomez advised the youth to seek more knowledge about their faith and its teaching on the issue of HIV/AIDS in order to avoid being "misled by public opinion that condoms should be made easily accessible for sex."
Although Gambia has a relatively low HIV infection rate, officially estimated at 1.6 percent of the population aged between 15 and 49, many humanitarian workers fear that the real HIV prevalence rate is much higher because of an increase in the sexual abuse of local children.
Between 1986, when the first case of AIDS was reported in Gambia, until 2001, the National AIDS Control Program (NACP) reported that over 1,500 people died from AIDS in the country. Furthermore 8,500 people are estimated to be living with the HIV virus that eventually causes AIDS.
Father Gomez recognized the reality of the pandemic in Gambia.
"AIDS is real and it exists in our country," he said. "Those who dismiss the virus and disease as American ploys to discourage sex are the actual joke."
Protestant churches also have voiced their concern over the pandemic.
Bishop Peter Onguko of the Africa for Christ Evangelistic Association Church told the Government and NGOs to stop wasting money, claiming that the availability condoms have failed to stop the spread of killer virus HIV.
The Bishop said the rate of HIV had rose yet everyone at risk of contracting the disease had condoms at their disposal.
He added that tactics used in the fight against the disease need to be changed because they had proved ineffective.
Similarly, John Sylva, the director of the Catholic Development Office, proposed an alternative interpretation of the ABC AIDS control slogan, which stands for "Abstain, Be careful, Condomize."
He recommended that 'C' should simply stand for "Change Behavior."
Sources say that while about 85 percent of the Gambia's 1.3 million population is Muslim, but the Christian churches still exert a strong social influence in the small West African country.