TOGO: 'Condoms are good, but abstinence is better'
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
LOME, 19 April (PLUSNEWS) - After consistently emphasising condoms in their prevention campaigns, organisations in Togo are advocating abstinence, creating confusion among young people.
"Yesterday they were advertising condoms, now they recommend abstinence. It now looks like those who doubted the effectiveness of condoms have been proved right," said Alfred, a security guard working in the capital city of Lomé.
Many other young Togolese are baffled by the shift to promoting abstinence rather than condoms as the best means of protection against HIV.
In July 2005, Population Services International (PSI), which specialises in social marketing, launched a massive advertising campaign in the media and on the streets of Lomé to promote abstinence, with slogans like "a true man knows how to wait" and "a true woman knows how to wait and does not yield to pressure".
PSI is well-known for its condom promotion efforts and, at one stage, distributed them free of charge, but its 'Protector Plus' condoms now cost 100 francs (US $0.20) for a box of four. In 2005, 700,000 units per month were sold in a country with five million inhabitants.
"For those who could be persuaded to use condoms, we managed to convince them, and today condoms are available to 95 percent of the population. We are now left with those who are difficult to convince," Maya Andrews, the resident representative of PSI in Togo told PlusNews.
PSI's strategy now focused on educating people, especially the youth, about avoiding infection, and promoted abstinence as the best protection against AIDS. "We do not wish to give people the impression that with a condom everything is allowed," Andrews commented.
The new policy has not been popular with some young people, the primary target of the campaign. Amah Crédo, 18, believes that "asking us to abstain from sexual contact while we're surrounded by so many things that encourage us to have [sex] is like believing in Utopia. Television, movies, the way girls dress up ... all this promotes a certain frame of mind, which leads us to sex", the student remarked.
Fafa, 17, commented: "I don't find anything bad in sex. If I need it, I ask my boyfriend to wear a condom and the problem is solved, but abstinence? No, because I have already started."
But Ilda, 16, who said she was a virgin, disagreed: "I don't have the time or inclination for that - my studies are more important at this stage. After finishing, I'll see."
Andrews regrets the negative reaction to the new campaign. "People don't seem to understand what we call abstinence; they mix it up with chastity, whereas our objective is to delay, as much as possible, the first sexual encounter," she said.
A PSI study found that two-thirds of people aged between 15 and 25 have already had their first sexual experience, and Andrews acknowledged that young people often had to endure considerable peer pressure, which led to them having sex.
Consequently, PSI has created clubs at about 20 colleges in the country to help girls not yield to pressure and to teach them how to better defend themselves. Sarah Wood, who is in charge of this initiative, said the clubs also encouraged young women to avoid unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, and to delay their sexual debut by turning to abstinence.
According to Andrews, "To reduce social pressure and to 'de-stigmatise' abstinence, we want to tell young people to abstain, even if they have already had sex."
Despite the heavy emphasis on abstinence in advertising campaigns, PSI and other HIV/AIDS organisations maintained that the complete ABC (Abstain, Be Faithful, Condomise) strategy for preventing HIV infection was still valid.
Espoir Adabiobinder, a psychological assistant at the Togolese NGO, 'Sauvons la vie' (Saving Life) commented, "Abstinence is ideal ... but we should not forget other means to modify behaviour ... the idea is: 'condoms are good, but abstinence is better'."