The Human Impact

When is a condom more than a condom?

July 23, 2012

When is a condom more than a condom?

When it becomes the catalyst for controversy, intimidation and even criminal prosecution, as it has in many places around the world today, a panel of experts said Sunday.

“There is no reason, in my opinion, why an inert piece of rubber should cause so much conflict and controversy…but it does,” said Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice and head of its Condoms for Life campaign.

He spoke at a session called “The politics of condoms: Cock-ups, controversies and cucumbers,” at the 19th International AIDS Conference which began a six-day run on July 22.

To illustrate the ongoing controversies surrounding the condom, O’Brien, who is Irish, began by recalling the time in 1992 when his group was prosecuted in Dublin for selling condoms at the Virgin Megastore.

“For some people love happens when you’re across the dance floor and you think, ‘Oh yes, now,’” he said, with a laugh.

But in 1992, in order to legally get a condom “you had to go to the doctor and convince the doctor that you needed it for bona fide family planning purposes. The doctor had to write a prescription and then the pharmacist had to judge you worthy,” he said. “It’s a long way from the dance floor to the doctor at 1 o’clock in the morning.”

Catholics for Choice was convicted, but the rock band U2 paid their court fine, calling the situation ludicrous. The prime minister said the same thing in a radio interview the next day.

The incident, O’Brien said, illustrated that through confrontation, “We can change the law.”

O’Brien criticised the “many faith organisations that are taking money for HIV/AIDS care but not providing condoms because they think they promote promiscuity.”

Condoms continue to be seen as threats rather than opportunities in a number of places, said Aleksandar Sasha Bodiroza, technical advisor for youth and HIV/AIDS in the Arab States Regional Office of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). For example, UNFPA personnel in Egypt recently were charged with immorality by civil society groups for distributing condoms, a team in the Sudan was arrested for doing the same and the Somali government, after requesting condoms, ended up burning them at the behest of religious authorities, Bodiroza said.

He pointed out that, despite the initial exuberance of the Arab Spring, the environment in that region is becoming more challenging than ever before as politically conservative groups gain strength.

“When we talk about young people, all the talk is about de-stigmatising condoms…but maybe what we have to do is de-stigmatise sex,” he said.

Condoms also figure in criminal cases when their very presence is used as evidence of alleged illicit activity, such as sex work, same-sex relationships and transmission of HIV, said Susan Timberlake, chief of the human rights and law division of the United Nations AIDS programme (UNAIDS).

Timberlake noted that 70 percent of countries have laws that make it difficult for groups vulnerable to HIV infection to obtain condoms, including people in prison.

In South Africa, 80 percent of sex workers reported being intimidated by police for having condoms, while 80 percent in Russia said police took their condoms, she said, citing a recent Open Society Foundations report. In Namibia, 50 percent of sex workers said police destroyed their condoms and 75 percent of them said they carried on their business using unprotected sex, she said.

Such trends are discouraging to many health professionals. Krishna Jafa, director of sexual, reproductive health and TB at PSI, a global health organisation, said: “Condoms work. They work to prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. They also prevent unplanned pregnancies” and they’re “incredibly cheap”.

In 2015 the provision of some 4.4 billion condoms – 2.4 billion of them will be needed for HIV prevention – will require support from donors, Jafa said. At a cost of about 2 cents per condom, the total amounts to about $90 million, or about 1.5 percent of all funds going to AIDS funding, she said.

For individuals, even “if you’re lucky enough to have sex every day of the year” the total cost would be about $7.30 annually, she said.

And that, she said, amounts to a bargain in terms of one’s health and one’s wallet.

Photo credit: A sex worker holds a bag of condoms during International Whores Day in central Sydney, June 2, 2009. REUTERS/Daniel Munoz

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