Sunday 16th April, 2006


Making condoms cool

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Photo: Andre Alexander

By Laura Dowrich-Phillips

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Sally Cowal is back and she is still outspoken and still unafraid of stirring up controversy. And with her latest project on T&T soil, the former American ambassador is ready to take on the naysayers.

The project, a social marketing programme for HIV/Aids prevention, that seeks to encourage condom use among all sexually active people, was launched on Tuesday night at Kapok Hotel. It is an initiative of Population Services International and its Caribbean affiliate Society for Family Health. Cowal is the vice-president of PSI, responsible for Latin America, the Caribbean and the United States.

PSI’s campaign is modern and edgy, geared specifically to the youth. Apart from print, radio and television advertisements that encourage behaviour change towards sex and condom use, the campaign includes T-shirts with the tag line If He Won’t, Then You Don’t. The campaign’s official slogan is: Got it? Get it? The words are included in the yellow and black logo symbolic of caution.

“The media ad campaign is directed at young people. Young people are not attracted to doom or gloom. There are no skulls and crossbones in it and it’s not preachy. This is made to involve young people. And we are particularly worried about the less educated and less informed,” said Cowal, who is based in Washington. PSI’s regional office, located in Woodbrook, is headed by American Pamela Faura.

The most important component of the campaign is the availability of condoms in non-traditional places such as clubs, bars and barbershops.

“We are making condoms a cool thing to have,” Cowal said, speaking to WomanWise hours before the launch.

Asked if she was prepared for a possible backlash from those who promote abstinence over condom use, Cowal said it’s not the first time she would be in a controversial position in T&T.

“I’d like to think I have a good reputation in T&T. Some of the things I said in the past were controversial, but true. No one’s forcing condoms on anybody. We are making people who wish to use condoms able to do so,” she said. “We are in 65 countries across the world. We talk about the ABC’s. You need to talk about abstinence. Evidence shows if they don’t have sex till they’re older, they’ll have less sex. We tell them to be faithful, have fewer partners, or be monogamous.

“But human nature is human nature and that’s not just in T&T, but T&T is like a good student, it works hard and parties hard and for many, partying hard means having sexual relations so they have to use condoms,” she said, stating that the problem with people who pushed abstinence was their use of the word “only.”

“It’s controversial even in the US. The religious groups have been pushing the government to go abstinence only. When anyone thinks they have the only truth and are unwilling to subject that truth to scientific tests, then they are putting the public at risk. There’s no evidence whatsoever that putting condoms in people’s hands increases sex. The people who want to have sex, want to have sex,” she said.

Cowal, who worked as the deputy director of UNAids after she left T&T in 1995, said she has had a lot of conversations with the Catholic Church and while a lot of people in the Church do not approve of condoms as contraception, they accept it if it is to protect human life.

She spoke of a Catholic priest in Africa who gave out condoms.

“He said every morning he came to say mass and there were fewer people because they were all dying with Aids. He said he saw the world with two eyes. One eye saw the ideal world, the other saw what was happening under his nose. I always thought that was really good.”

Stressing that everything has to be evidence based, Cowal said that in T&T, six times as many young women are infected with HIV than men.

“What does that say? That older men are seeking younger girls to have sex with. Our campaign is also aimed at those men, it’s cross-generational. They need to check their behaviour. We are trying to show people their double standards. Societal behaviour has to change,” she said.

Cowal said that although current HIV/Aids infection in T&T is at three per cent, that figure could easily jump to 30 per cent.

“I’m afraid in two to three years, I’ll come back and it’ll be four per cent,” said Cowal who lamented the increased crime rate since her last visit four years ago.

That was in 2002, when Cowal was invited by the American Chamber of Commerce, which she founded in 1992, to deliver the feature address at its tenth anniversary gala.

At the time, Cowal was president of the Cuba Policy Foundation which aimed to end the US trade embargo on Cuba and restore diplomatic relations between the two countries. In an interview with this reporter, she expressed a belief then that trade relations would bring about democratic reform on Castro’s island.

“After we spoke, the Bush policy towards Cuba kept getting tighter and Fidel kept getting worse. I didn’t want to keep banging my head on wall.

“I had an invitation from PSI and I took it up three and a half years ago. I just keep reinventing myself and finding things I am passionate about.”

PSI is one of the largest and more established non-profit, social marketing organisations in the world. The organisation utilises novel marketing strategies influenced by a private sector approach to change the health of people across the world.

Apart from HIV/Aids, PSI also works to address malaria, diarrhoea and mineral deficiencies particularly among the poor.

The Caribbean social marketing programme launched on Tuesday is currently being implemented in Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, the Bahamas, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Monsterrat, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines and Suriname.

The campaign is managed by PSI’s regional office which has been based in T&T for a year.

The project is funded by Pan Caribbean Partnership in collaboration with the Canadian International Development Agency.

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