SADC militaries and the AIDS pandemic

However, militaries in Southern Africa have recognised the need for understanding how the AIDS pandemic affects the effective functioning of their institutions. There is a concern that HIV and AIDS is a hindrance to the project of eradicating poverty and to development efforts. Recently, the Namibian Minister of Defence ‘ Charles Namoloh ‘ who is currently the chair of the SADC Organ for Safety and Security hosted a meeting with various militaries in the region. The meeting was convened to discuss how militaries could ensure better responses to the pandemic. Amongst militaries in the region there is a myth that soldiers have a five-time higher prevalence rate than civilian populations. This myth does not factor into account that young men ranging between the ages of 15-24 in civilian populations have a lower prevalence rate than young women; approximately 3 percent. Added to this equation, militaries screen new recruits (within this age group) for various diseases and for mental and physical fitness. Therefore, if a person is HIV positive s/he will not be recruited by the military; meaning that new recruits have an “almost” 0 percent prevalence rate. “Almost” in this context suggest that at the time of testing, dependant on the efficiency of the test, people might be recruited during their window period. This bias in recruitment is arguably a human rights offence. Soldiers are vulnerable to the HI virus due to their susceptibility to injury during armed conflicts. However, SADC military hospitals do not have anti-retroviral therapy (ART) for their staff. In Namibia if a soldier is HIV positive the soldier is referred to the National Health System because there is no ART for the Department of Defence. This could be due to a lack of funding or lack of political will which will have repercussions for the militaries in the future. Subsequently, health workers are also in a high risk category but unlike soldiers, they have access to treatment and post-exposure prophylaxis for any such eventualities that occur as a result of the risks involved with the job. Older members of the military are often found to be HIV positive because they are more mobile and are often deployed either as peacekeepers in the region or on the continent or are sent to assist in humanitarian efforts in areas that have suffered natural disasters. Moreover, soldiers operating as peacekeepers or humanitarian aid workers are financially lucrative and can engage in transactional sex with refugees and internally displaced persons. These factors contribute to the prevalence of the virus within the military. This is particularly worrying for the militaries because with the top echelons of the militaries being infected comes with it the fear of loss of knowledge of the institution. These losses can be measured in monetary terms with a real loss of skills. The significance of this problem is that the militaries themselves do not have a clear indication of the extent to which the pandemic exists within their ranks; yet they have become panicked and have responded from a neo-liberal organisational perspective borrowing on the idea of drawing a business plan. Part of the business plan includes a community response. The militaries have decided that they would like to engage with communities in controlling the spread of the pandemic through prevention strategies. The meeting chaired by Namoloh I argue, was a talk shop without the development of a prevention strategy even though the urgency of the matter was not lost on the members present at the meeting. It was viewed that the region was in need of a plan to enable synergy between the militaries and civilian populations in efforts to promote economic growth whilst decreasing HIV incidence rates. Mandatory testing was suggested as an option but not within the context of a human rights framework; implying that without access to ART mandatory testing is not a possibility. However, this is a catch-22 situation for the militaries for without mandatory testing and access to ART the SADC militaries do not have a clear indication of their HIV prevalence rate. It is also dangerous to send into combat or on peacekeeping missions soldiers’ that might be infected. A strong political will is what is needed to find a solution to reducing the HIV prevalence and incidence rates within the militaries. It would be wise for the SADC militaries to implement a human rights framework when thinking about the AIDS pandemic and work from the standpoint of access to treatment together with prevention strategies and campaigns. There is also a need for an extension of that obligation towards the families of soldiers, ensuring their accessibility to treatment and social service benefits. l Nadira Omarjee is the Research Manager at POWA. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.

June 2006
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