Muslim leaders in Kenya's North Eastern Province have resolved to campaign against the promotion of condoms as a means of preventing HIV.
The decision was made after a recent meeting on the theme of "Islam and Health", attended by more than 60 Muslim scholars and teachers in the provincial capital of Garissa.
"A lot of money is being wasted to poison our community ... a huge amount of money is spent on buying condoms, buying immorality," Sheikh Mohamud Ali, of Garissa district, told IRIN/PlusNews.
The leaders agreed to actively preach against the use and public promotion of condoms as a strategy to contain the pandemic and prevent pregnancy. They also agreed to oppose the distribution of condoms in villages and educational institutions across the northeast.
"We are not opposed to the Ministry of Health's campaigns to fight HIV/AIDS, but we are concerned that they are using the wrong way, which is not acceptable to our tradition and religion," Ali said. "We cannot use the same means to fight these problems all over the country, and we must be involved in the campaigns and our suggestions accepted."
The clerics further demanded the closure of bars in the northeast and asked the government to suspend the licensing of any new bars. According to the clerics, local bars and "video dens" screened pornographic movies that were contributing to sexually transmitted infections. The widespread abuse of drugs was another factor: a locally grown mild stimulant, "khat", is popular in the region.
The leaders expressed their view that the best way for the youth to avoid HIV was through the observance of Islamic teachings such as fasting, regular prayer and shunning extramarital affairs. They advised men to avoid looking at women, who should dress modestly.
Abdi Welli, a taxi driver in Garissa, told IRIN/PlusNews he agreed with the clerics that condoms should be banned. He believed the widespread myth that condoms and contraceptives were laced with the HI virus. "We know the condoms are not safe ... if you want to contract the virus that causes AIDS, then use [a condom]," he said. "After all, we have heard in the past that the Western world is using the condom to eliminate Africans, and Muslims in particular."
Discussing sexual issues is traditionally taboo, which has led to widespread ignorance about HIV and AIDS in the northeast. Although HIV prevalence rates are still among the lowest in the country - 1.4 percent compared to the national average of 5.1 percent, according to Kenya's National AIDS Control Council - the region also has the lowest uptake of condoms, and health workers say this is contributing to new HIV infections. Many traders refuse to stock condoms on the grounds that they promote immorality, so their availability is limited.
Health workers have expressed concern that the decision by the Muslim leaders will damage anti-AIDS efforts in the region. Provincial Medical Officer Dr Osman Warfa, who attended the meeting, said condoms were critical to the fight against the pandemic.
"It will certainly give some youths an excuse to avoid the use of condoms, and this will endanger many of them," he told IRIN/PlusNews.
Free condoms will remain available at government health centres in the region.