Kenya's efforts to promote safe sex and combat HIV/AIDS have apparently hit a snag, as religious leaders have accused the government of promoting infidelity instead.
The controversy began when Kenyan health officials teamed up with USAID and a similar agency in the U.K. to sponsor a television advertisement showing two women shopping in the marketplace. One of the women reminds her friend to use a condom while having sex with her boyfriend when her frequently drunk husband is away. The boyfriend is shown in the background, selling shoes and flirting with another woman.
The commercial quickly came under attack from Christian and Muslim leaders who argue that it promotes immorality and infidelity. "The advert depicts this nation as a Sodom and Gomorrah and not one that values the institution of marriage and family," a leader of the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya, declared. One woman criticized the ad for using a mother as the main character. "The fact that a mother figure has been used makes it worse because mothers are the people who stand for families and the ones who teach children the good morals," she said. (Past condom ads in Kenya have been decidedly humorous, though they haven't exactly put public-health messages front and center.) The government has since withdrawn the ad.
In an interview with NTV, the head of Kenya's National Aids / STD Control Program (NASCOP), Dr. Peter Cherutich, defended the spot, arguing that Kenyans "cannot bury our heads in the sand." Sexual infidelity is a reality in the country, he explained, and NASCOP is doing its duty by promoting sexual health in light of this fact:
The collaboration that we would like to have with the church is that they become our partners. They teach their congregants and they teach Kenyans how to protect themselves against HIV, by being faithful to their sexual partners. And for those that are not able to be faithful, then they need to use a condom.
"We know for a fact that a big proportion of both men and women have sex outside their regular partnerships," Cherutich told the BBC in another interview. "And so, unfaithfulness, as you would call it, is a reality that we need to address in this country." NASCOP says that it is also trying to fight the stereotype that only men are unfaithful, while emphasizing that the task of using condoms should not be left to men alone.
It's an important conversation -- but one many Kenyans appear ambivalent about having as families gather around the television.