Bob Preston, a gay American man who frequently works in Cairo, figures that getting Egyptian men to use condoms is an uphill battle for two reasons.
First, in a conservative Muslim society where married couples rarely use condoms for contraception, he said, a purchaser is presumed to be gay “because you’re not going to buy condoms to have sex with a woman.”
And among Egyptian gays, men usually don’t insist on condoms for fear of suggesting “they’re admitting they’re dirty, infected or whatever,” Preston explained. Asking a partner to use a condom could put an end to the encounter, a price that many consider too high.
He said foreigners are far more likely than Egyptians to insist on using condoms during sex as a way of blocking the spread of HIV and hepatitis B and C.
Surveys back up Preston’s contention that Egyptians rarely use condoms, even though they are readily available in the country’s many pharmacies.
Maha Aon, at the Cairo branch of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, pointed to studies that showed only 10 percent of Egyptian youth know about condoms, 7 out of 10 men say they don’t have adequate information about proper condom use, and almost a quarter of those surveyed believe that condoms can be harmful.
The government’s AIDS expert, Dr. Nasr El-Sayed, expected a December meeting of more than 80 Muslim and Christian religious leaders from several Arab countries to promote the role of condoms in HIV prevention.
But that’s not what happened at the conference, which was sponsored by the United Nations Development Program.
The leaders did sign what is called the Cairo Declaration, in which they acknowledged that their nations “face the imminent danger of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and have a great responsibility and duty that demands urgent action.”
They agreed that they needed to abolish discrimination against people living with HIV or AIDS, and said sexual abstinence before marriage and faithfulness within it can inhibit the spread of HIV.
But while they said there may be a “medical call” for other prevention strategies, they did not openly name condoms as a means of protection.
Still, “just getting these . . . religious communities to speak about something in a manner that was extremely open was quite revolutionary,” U. N. spokeswoman Nadine Shamounki told the Associated Press after the Cairo Declaration was issued. “It’s a totally unexpected and refreshing approach [compared with the view] that God was punishing these people.”
Because of the conservatism in many Middle Eastern nations, those who want to fight HIV must have patience and tread cautiously, noted Dr. Cherif Soliman, of the Family Health International agency.
If a pilot program can be successful without rocking the cultural boat, it can then become a model for others to follow. That’s what he hopes will happen with the new anonymous testing center in Cairo and the HIV outreach work with drug users that Family Health International has encouraged.
As Soliman put it, “In this area of the world, [the leaders] need to see to be convinced, to copy and paste.”