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It’s Lent and, for the first time in a long time, I actually visited a church on Ash Wednesday and am reverently observing the period by giving up coffee and chocolate.  Since my early objections at a young age to certain criteria required of the faithful, I have always considered myself to be spiritual rather than religious; but many recent life events have led me to re-examine religion and explore it on my own terms.  Rifling through my writing archives this evening, I stumbled upon this response to an email conversation with a colleague on this topic during Lent last year:

St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, circa Easter 1911

St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, circa Easter 1911

Recent events in the realm of reproductive health as well as a thoughtful examination of the core values of many of the world’s organized religions are exhibitive of the powerful role that religious leaders can play in preventing the transmission of HIV.  The everyday lives of many individuals and communities around the world are informed by their religion’s teachings; and as religious leaders are guided unwaveringly by their sacred text, they themselves are viewed as trusted and unfailing sources of information and advisement.  For many people in developing countries, western medicine’s scientific evidence is associated with the “White regime” and considered to be highly suspect in comparison to the irrefutable, sacred text of their religion and the advice of their religious leaders.

I have the pleasure of working with a group of HIV-positive mothers in Dakar, Senegal; and at the 2011 International Conference on Family Planning, imams in Senegal officially declared their support for contraception, including condoms.  These islamic leaders are deeply respected as steadfast holy men who lead their communities throughout their lives, offering guidance and support through birth, marriage and death; and the imams explained their show of support by stating, “What’s good for a woman is good for her family, and for her society.  We want healthy societies.”

I was personally raised in the Catholic faith, and I was taught both in church and in my Catholic school that being a good Catholic means showing respect and care for those around us.  I firmly believe that condom use exemplifies the deep care and respect that one has for oneself, as well as one’s partner.  Using a condom demonstrates a belief in the right that every person has to live a full and healthy life, the right to plan a family and the right to choose what is best for ourselves and our own bodies.

When considering religious institutions such as Islam and Catholicism, using condoms is not against their core values – it supports them.  Pope Benedict XVI has even stated, “where the intention is to reduce the risk of infection, [condom use] can nevertheless be a first step on the way to another, more humane sexuality.”

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In transit

In transit

On Tuesday morning two weeks ago, I arrived in Cairo with my colleague.  After a brief lunch at the one and only restaurant open during Ramadan…

Our driver Ibrahim, fasting at McDonalds

Our driver Ibrahim, fasting at McDonalds

… we arrived at our meeting with an AIDS service organization with whom we had the pleasure of working in the winter of 2009.  The organization in Cairo, which for the safety of their staff and beneficiaries will remain anonymous in this post, is doing truly incredible work with key populations in their community.  They began as the only outreach program for female sex workers in Cairo in 2006, piloted new programming in 2007 and, having gained experience and momentum in their work, are now scaling up their activities with generous support from The United Nations Population Fund, UNAIDS, UNICEF and the National AIDS Program.

In our meeting

In our meeting

Carrying condoms is not technically illegal in Egypt; but if you are unmarried and found to be in possession of condoms, they are used as evidence against you to prove that you are engaging in sex work (which is absolutely illegal). This makes it extremely difficult for anyone to have access to condoms when they might need them. This incredible organization provides legal aid and advice on how to handle the law if you are stopped at a check point and found to be carrying condoms, with lawyers who believe in their cause volunteering on their 24-hour hotline. They also provide condom distribution to the general public, as their belief is that anyone who may engage in sexual activity has the right to protect themselves.

Informational booklet about the Egyptian sex trade

Informational booklet about the Egyptian sex trade

During the Egyptian revolution, our colleague from this organization slept in Tahir Square for 18 days. He told us that the revolution actually made his job much easier – shouting about the cause was easier, the slum areas were more accessible for outreach, and reaching female sex workers for education was less restrictive.  They were able to further their interpersonal education initiatives and pubic focus groups, talking to bus drivers and sex workers about HIV, AIDS, safer sex and condoms.

Cairo at dusk

Cairo at dusk

But with the growing instability in Tahir Square, the organization had to eventually move its drop-in center back to a slightly less centralized location in Cairo.  Since the revolution, the government has been shutting down certain specialized initiatives, such as coalitions for MSM (Men who have Sex with Men), anti-stigma organizations and alliances for “out positives.”  But our partner organization is forging ahead, including guidance counseling for sex workers looking to transition out of the profession and into a new line of work.

Arabic anti-sexual harassment campaign on Facebook

Arabic anti-sexual harassment campaign on Facebook

After our meeting came to a close, I felt newly inspired.  I had a renewed desire to continue fighting for equality and the creation of a climate in which people can ask questions and discuss who they are and what they want openly, without fear of negative repercussions as a result of long-standing societal “norms.” 

I feel so privileged to be able to travel as I do for my work.  Meeting these incredible people who are fighting in nearly impossible terrain for rights that many of us take for granted is a constant reminder that our world has so much further to come.  And if we all continue to do what we canbe a positive influence on the children in our lives, encourage those around us to ask questions and challenge assumptions, offer support in any way we can to organizations and individuals striving toward these goalswe will get there.

Cairo, illuminated

Cairo, illuminated

In the marketplace

In the marketplace

Before sunset

Before sunset


I love hearing from you –
post your questions & comments here,
circa anytime.  You can also
Like me on Facebook & Follow me on Twitter!

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