Military forces from 20 countries in West and Central Africa have launched a regional HIV network to share information on combating HIV within their ranks and communities, following the example of other military-led efforts to fight the spread of HIV.
“We need to harmonize our interventions,” army captain Sami Kambiré from Burkina Faso told IRIN. “Without this network, what we have now are disparate strategies. We need to learn from one another what is working? What is not? Why?”
A number of studies on HIV prevalence rates among sub-Saharan Africa’s armed forces have shown higher rates than in civilian populations, with the notable exception of Ethiopia’s forces.
The three-day conference to launch the Regional HIV Network of Military Forces in West and Central Africa, ending on 9 July, presented armed forces’ efforts to fight HIV in the region, best practices in fighting AIDS in Africa and a panel discussion on HIV and security.
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Simeon Ekanom, coordinator of Nigeria’s Armed Forces Program of AIDS Control, told IRIN Nigeria’s government has recognized the heightened risk for HIV infection among soldiers. “We are more mobile, far from our families. Men look to relax. Women come to the camps.”
The head of one of Nigeria’s state committees on HIV/AIDS told IRIN in August 2008 that both rebels and armed forces were committing rape in the Niger Delta conflict zone.
Returning soldiers had an HIV infection rate twice as high as that of the general population, according to a recent study conducted by the Nigerian Civil Military Alliance to combat HIV/AIDS. The average nationwide HIV prevalence rate in Nigeria was 3.1 percent in 2008, according to UNAIDS.
In 1999 the Nigeria-based Pan African Committee of Military Medicine found Nigerian armed forces had double the possibility of contracting HIV within three years of joining the army.
But Nigeria’s armed forces representative Ekanom told IRIN the situation has improved, though data remains scarce for HIV infection rates in the military. “Behaviours are changing. We go into the camps and talk to soldiers one-on-one. In groups, they do not internalize the message and think they could never get infected.”
The United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution in 2000 identifying HIV infection in defence forces as a threat to international peace. In 2001 a UN document raised the concern “the UN itself may be an unwitting agent for the spread of the [HIV] virus around the world” through its peacekeepers.
Jane Ansah, a doctor with Ghana’s armed forces, told IRIN soldiers who test positive for HIV are not deployed. Ghana has up to 6,000 soldiers serving in five peacekeeping missions, said Ansah.
During a presentation in Dakar at the network’s launch, Ansah explained how soldiers were provided condoms in the military barracks, to which Senegal’s Minister of Armed Forces, Becaye Diop, asked: “But by giving them condoms, are you not encouraging promiscuity?”
Ansah replied men will be approached by sex workers whether or not they have condoms.
New recruits who test positive are not admitted into the armed forces, Ansah told IRIN. “We have gotten a lot of criticism over our ban.” A similar ban in South Africa was overturned by the courts in 2008.
During one of the events at the launch, Senegalese male soldiers acted out a seduction scene with local women, insisting on the men’s right to sex because they were “protecting the women and improving safety,” to which the women – hands on hips – responded in unison: “AIDS will only leave us more insecure.”