Why Won't The Pope Let Women Protect Themselves From HIV?
As the UN reviews its HIV/Aids strategy, papal representatives are putting doctrine before African women's health
Who can forget Pope Benedict XVI's first tour of Africa as pontiff in spring 2009? He told the continent hardest hit by the global HIV/Aids crisis that more stringent moral attitudes toward sex would help fight the disease – indeed, that condom distribution "increases the problem". There was no sign that his Holiness understood the depth of the pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa, which accounted for 75% of all HIV-related deaths that year, or had made any attempt to reconcile religious doctrine with compassionate public health policy.
Now, it's June 2011, the 30th anniversary of the Aids pandemic, and the Holy See is at it again.
Today marks the opening of a United Nations general assembly "high level meeting" on Aids in New York City that will evaluate the progress of that body's response to the pandemic over the past five years and set the agenda for the next decade. Serra Sippel, president of the Centre for Health and Gender Equity (Change), declares that "this meeting is where we decide how serious we are about beating HIV, and how serious we are about women's equality." If so, the Holy See has left no doubt about their stance on either issue.
For months now, their all-male team has been trying to strip all references to sexual and reproductive health and rights from the meeting's declaration; gutting all mentions of education and prevention other than marriage and fidelity; and insisting that "families" be replaced with "the family", as though that monolith even exists or that it provides some kind of magic shield against HIV.
Either the Holy See does not understand, or does not care that their hardline stance is not actually "pro-life" in any sense. They ask that paragraph 60 of the declaration, which addresses research and development for treating and curing HIV, delete all mention of "female-controlled prevention methods". This despite the fact that female condoms and the very promising looking microbicides now being developed have no relation to abortion and represent the single greatest potential life saver for women worldwide.
Ditto for paragraph 58, which makes the all-important and entirely sensible promise that the UN will "commit to ensuring that national responses to HIV and Aids meet the specific needs of women and girls". The Holy See, allied with the African Group and Iran, asks for the deletion of the very sentence that spells out what that really means:
"… by ensuring that women and girls can exercise their right to have control over, and decide freely and responsibly on, matters related to their sexuality in order to increase their ability to protect themselves from HIV infection, including their sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrimination and violence."
This isn't a theoretical debate or a war of words. Ann Starrs of Family Care International notes that women and girls "constitute half of new HIV infections and 60% of the HIV-infected population in sub-Saharan Africa". Preaching fidelity won't protect a woman there (or anywhere) from HIV, because her primary risk of HIV infection is probably unprotected sex with her husband.
Can the Holy See possibly understand that HIV is the leading cause of death globally for women of reproductive age, not least because up to 70% of women worldwide have been forced to have unprotected sex? Do these men understand that whenever the women of the Democratic Republic of Congo who survive their country's poverty through sex work travel, they wear female condoms "under the assumption that they would be raped"?
There's nothing new about the Holy See's placing ideology over the health and wellbeing of women and girls worldwide, or pretending that marriage and the family are themselves some kind of condom. But its hardline political stance should be particularly shocking now, given all that we know about the impact of the pandemic on women and girls.
Won't someone please tell the pope?