Subject: IPS: Hip-Hop and Rock for Condoms Challenge Church

HEALTH-EAST TIMOR: Hip-Hop and Rock for Condoms Challenge Church

Sonny Inbaraj

DARWIN, Australia, Jul 5 (IPS) - Musicians in the predominately Catholic East Timor are taking their HIV/AIDS message directly to the people by circumventing official Church policy that bans the use of condoms.

''It is sheer hypocrisy to tell youth that it is a sin to use condoms and to abstain from pre or post marital sex,'' Milena da Silva, a band member of the hip-hop Bibi Bulak Group, tells IPS in a phone interview.

''If you go around the capital Dili and listen to what the young East Timorese men are talking about - it's always about having sex,'' says Da Silva.

HIV/AIDS is spread through risky sexual behaviour such as having multiple partners, and is not confined to particular groups of people. But '' most of them don't use condoms when they visit prostitutes,'' adds Da Silva.

''You can't control these guys and if a lackadaisical attitude is adopted towards HIV/AIDS, then we're in for some big-time trouble,'' she warns.

Ninety percent of East Timor's 800,000 people are professed Catholics, although many are also animists. There are small Protestant, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist communities in Dili.

The Catholic Church in East Timor, as in many other mainly Catholic countries, opposes any kind of contraception, claiming it breaks the link between sex and procreation. Consequently, it has repeatedly refused to agree with health experts who recommend the use of condoms as protection from contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infection (STI).

Instead, it encourages abstinence and fidelity within marriage as a safe way of avoiding HIV and STI.

Milena's band has just recorded 'Uza Ida Kondom' (Use a Condom) in East Timor's national language 'Tetum'.

The lyrics centre around a young East Timorese man who decides to get a tattoo from a tattooist who never changes his needles.

The young man then decides to visit a prostitute and has unprotected sex with her. Then the young man's uncle also goes to the same girl and refuses to wear a condom when having sex.

This uncle later goes back home to his village and dies of AIDS some time later.

The song ends with the funeral of the young man who also succumbs to AIDS.

According to Family Health International (FHI), which started work in East Timor in April, this ongoing risk behaviour in the fledgling nation is worrying.

''Among groups of men who have cash and are frequently away from their families, visits to sex workers are quite common,'' says FHI's East Timor Programme Officer Rui Carvalho.

''These individuals are choosing not to abstain or be faithful to a spouse, they are not choosing to protect themselves or their partners by using condoms,'' adds Carvalho.

A World Health Organisation (WHO) assessment team that visited post-conflict East Timor in November 2000 concludes in a report that "condom use is still a sensitive issue and does not get the support from the Catholic Church".

"There is no policy on condom promotion; thus there is no definitive protocol for the whole system of condom procurement, logistics and monitoring," the WHO report adds.

For 25 years, East Timor was occupied by Indonesia. The Timorese in a United Nations-sponsored referendum opted for independence in late August 1999 and became independent in May 2003, after a two-year interim administration led by the United Nations.

''The topic of HIV/AIDS and condom usage makes people very uncomfortable here,'' Bibi Bulak's coordinator Yohan York tells IPS. ''We're testing the waters in the country, to gauge whether the local community radio stations will play 'Uza Kondom','' he says.

York says new forms of emerging music in East Timor - like hip-hop, reggae, ska and rock - are important mediums for social messages.

''Bibi Bulak is willing to push the conservative boundaries to save young peoples' lives through our music,'' says the Canada-born musician. ''Music is a powerful tool because it also entertains.''

Domingus da Silva Lay, one of the founder members of the popular rock band Vi Almaa X, agrees with York. ''The entertainment element draws people and when you get an audience you preach the message -- and that goes down well,'' Lay tells IPS.

The Vi Alma X bassist reveals the sexual realities in the country.

''You've got to be kidding if you say everyone is faithful to their spouses and there's no sleeping around in Catholic East Timor,'' he tells IPS.

The rock band recorded 'HIV/AIDS' in Tetum last year and performed it publicly a t the National Stadium on World AIDS Day in December 2003.

''I think the mainstream media has let us down in not giving us enough information about AIDS. So that's the reason we decided to record 'HIV/AIDS' to reach out the East Timorese youth who consider it not macho to wear condoms when they have sex,'' says Lay.

In East Timor, only a handful of people have tested positive for HIV, but healthcare workers say poor monitoring and the widespread stigma is probably masking the true picture. Reports from international organisations do not have categorical information on HIV/AIDS in East Timor.

''People don't know who is infected, but they are scared. Of course, if they hear that HIV positive people are being treated at a clinic, they would run away from that clinic,'' says FHI's Carvalho.

The WHO assessment report warns that the components for an HIV epidemic already exist in East Timor - a problem exacerbated by many East Timorese moving around locally and back and forth across the common border with Indonesia-administered West Timor province.

''There is a HIV problem but no one knows how extensive it is because we don't do testing,'' says Dan Murphy, a medical doctor running the Bairo Pite Clinic in Dili.

While the extent of HIV remained invisible, Murphy tells IPS his clinic frequently treats men suffering the more obvious sexually transmitted diseases, such as gonorrhaea, from visiting sex workers and having multiple partners.

''If unchecked, I fear a major blow out in HIV among the conservative Catholic population resistant to condom use and sexual discussion,'' he says. (END/2004)

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