Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) may have travelled a long way from the time myths and ill-formed notions about it fuelled a strong prejudice. But new myths keep surfacing every other day. What really drives the response to HIV/AIDS is a complex web of politically-motivated concerns.
It is this web that the Boler and Archer's book tries to map, highlighting the intricate network of political motivations that determine the way prevention, education, and support services are offered in countries hardest hit by the epidemic. And the authors do it pretty well, critically, without humming and hawing, and citing real-life situations in support. Here, then, is an open and honest book, from which nations will do well to draw lessons.
The authors are both with ActionAid. Tania Boler is a specialist in HIV and education who also did a stint with the United Nations. And David Archer is an acknowledged expert in international education. They put their heads and vast experience together to analyse how HIV prevention has “slipped down the international agenda and [how] meaningful attempts to tackle it are hampered by religious ideology and power struggles.”
“None of the children knew what AIDS was — but they knew it was bad.” Young Somchai (in Thailand) introduces the seldom noticed, but significant, component of discrimination at school. Orphaned because of AIDS, Somchai now has access to treatment, thanks to a local NGO, but is still not at school and has no idea that he is positive too. Where the lack of education co-exists with stigma, poverty and patriarchy, there seems to be little chance of making any headway.
Beacon of hope
However, the authors make it clear that, in the midst of all the HIV-wrought havoc and despair, education serves as a beacon of hope. The reasoning is simple: “Simply staying at school means that young children are in a better position to protect themselves from HIV.” Education has managed to provide African girls with the power to make sexual choices that prevent HIV infection.
From India, Africa, Thailand, and even the United Kingdom, voices speak of poverty, inadequate infrastructure, stigma, loneliness, want of political will, and, in some cases, genuine helplessness to face the onslaught of the HIV and the complex political whirl it unleashes.
South Africa's response to AIDS (under the leadership of Mbeki) comes under heavy fire. For a nation that, in 2007 had the most number of people with HIV infection, the government's response was obtuse, dilatory, and negligent.
The United States, under President George Bush, advocated abstinence and fidelity more than any other form of prevention. These messages inspired by religious right wing groups were spread across the world through PEPFAR funding. The authors, citing examples, show how they were — in several cases, based on inaccurate data — born out of fear, and caused serious damage to the condom promotion programme.
Boler and Archer refer to the huge funding the low and middle income countries get and argue that, if in spite of it, they have not responded well enough the reason is traceable to some basic problems in the way the assistance is provided. Sub-Saharan Africa, despite its heavy load, receives little international aid; and the money that comes is accompanied by conditionalities that are difficult to comply with.
There are, as must indeed be, positive stories too. In contrast to Somchai, there is Kwanjai, close to Chiang Mai, in Thailand; Brazil, where an active civil society and an early and serious investment in anti-retro virals helped tremendously with the country's response; and South Africa's Soul Buddyz, a highly popular national soap about HIV/AIDS that has made a difference to the youth;
Peppered right through with examples from real life situations, The Politics of Prevention has its readability enhanced by combining the story-telling mode with presentation of facts. To quote Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, Boler and Archer “have given us a wonderful investigation of the ways and means of fighting the spread of AIDS through the expansion of education: better schooling, enhancement of public knowledge, and understanding of science.”