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 Wednesday 03 October 2007
 
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ART on the frontline

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DRC: Army needs help to tackle HIV and the attitudes that spread it

Photo: Sylvia Spring/IRIN
The DRC military, often unpaid and badly led, has a reputation for indiscipline.
The Democratic Republic of Congo's (DRC) armed forces have been reluctant to admit AIDS existed in its ranks. Now it has no choice but to address the damage caused by the epidemic, a battle that starts with the fight against sexual violence.

"The army has been very slow to put in place programmes to fight AIDS," admitted Colonel Felix Tshala Muaku, coordinator of the Army's Programme to Fight AIDS (PALS). "[But we] started losing highly trained officers and this forced them to become aware of the problem."

National HIV/AIDS prevalence in the DRC is about 4 percent. No one officially knows the rate of HIV infection in the armed forces, but a 2005 behavioural survey financed by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which has worked with the army on AIDS, revealed the extent of the potential problem.

According to the report by the University of Kinshasa's Department of Population Science and Development, 80 percent of soldiers interviewed said they have, or have had, a sexually transmitted disease, which can facilitate the spread of the HI virus.

Only one soldier in four used a condom during his most recent sexual encounter, and 70 percent admitted they knew of someone who had either been the victim of forced sex, or who had committed the crime.

A fragile peace has begun in the DRC after more than a decade of civil war, during which the men in uniform fighting in the east of the country regarded looting and raping as perks of the job.

Evelyne Mwelo, provincial director of the US-funded Family Health Association in Katanga Province, southeastern DRC, has worked with soldiers. "We explain that a sexual relationship is something to be negotiated, and that when force is used, that has consequences, as there is a risk of injury and therefore a greater chance of being infected with HIV."

Colonel Muaku regards enforcement of the military's code of conduct as one way of tackling sexual abuse by the troops. A recent life sentence handed down to six soldiers for collective rape - described for the first time as a "crime against humanity" - won applause from human rights and AIDS organisations.

The DRC military, often unpaid and badly led, has a reputation for indiscipline. Colonel Muaku acknowledges that PALS, created in 2004, needs help from international partners. The authorities are "doing what they can", but at the moment there is not even a programme for distributing condoms to soldiers.

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