HIV/AIDS is exacting a toll on the tiny southern African mountain kingdom of Lesotho where, according to UNAIDS, 26 percent of the population is infected.
Influential constitutional monarch King Letsie III is more than ever engaged in what he calls "the battle against HIV/AIDS". In the following PlusNews interview King Letsie talks about the need to overcome the taboo of talking about sex, and the "bad habits" that encourage HIV/AIDS in Lesotho.
QUESTION: Your Majesty, you are very involved in the fight against AIDS ... Why are you so involved in the fight against the pandemic?
ANSWER: Well, I think the reason is a fairly simple one. Lesotho and the African continent as a whole is faced with this huge problem. It imposes a huge responsibility on us, particularly those in leadership, to try and help in whatever way we can to arrest the growth of this pandemic that is devouring our people left, right and centre. I feel obliged morally to lend assistance and be involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Q: Do You have any personal friends living with HIV/AIDS?
A: Not that I know of. Sometimes it is difficult to say that you know somebody who has died of AIDS, because we still have a problem in Lesotho of disclosing our HIV-status or whether our sons and daughters have died of AIDS. People get sick over a period of time, and they die. The family will say, he or she had pneumonia or this and that. So we still have a problem of people actually acknowledging their HIV-status or acknowledging that their children have died of AIDS. If not for the lack of disclosure, I would probably tell you that there are a hundred people I know living with HIV or having died from AIDS. As it is, I can only suspect that someone has died of HIV/AIDS.
Q: In Your New Year's speech you talked against abuse of children. You even suggested some abusers wilfully infect children with HIV. What is the matter that such things can happen in Lesotho and what can be done to stop it?
A: This is a new phenomena that children are being abused and some people think that going to bed with a virgin would cure their HIV/AIDS status. I can't pin it down on one set of circumstances which I can say is the cause, but it is extremely worrying and we must stand up and fight against it. It is our responsibility as leaders to instil a sense of morals in our population that such things cannot be tolerated in a decent society.
Q: In many of your speeches you have emphasised the need for parents to teach their children about HIV/AIDS. Talking about sexuality is said to be taboo for many Basotho. How will you and the queen teach your own daughter and the other children you will hopefully have?
A: Talking about sex, particularly with children, is always a difficult issue to deal with in Lesotho and other African countries. I think nowadays we have to try and escape from that thinking and be more outgoing and frank with our children. This is how we intend to deal with that problem, and I hope we will be able to manage it. We have no choice but to talk to our children at the appropriate age, when we feel they will understand. This must be done in a language that will convey the message clearly.
Q: From the beginning of your marriage you and the queen have pleaded with Basotho to abstain from sex, be faithful or to use condoms. Some people think that the youth don't listen to the ABC message. Is that right, and if yes, what else can be done to make youth listen?
A: More and more young people are being infected with HIV/AIDS at an alarming rate. It is not going down, it is not static, it is rising, which means they are not listening. The question is whether we are not communicating with them in the right way or they just don’t understand or simply are not listening. We have to look at both sides of the coin. The policy makers will have to struggle with what can be done, but something has to be done quickly. I believe families have a huge responsibility. Parents should do more to instil discipline and morality in their children. At school we should do more to preach the 'gospel' to the children. There is still room for improvement in our communication strategy.
Q: It is said to be a tradition in Lesotho that many have more than one partner even when they are married?
A: I wouldn't call it a tradition, just a bad habit, which unfortunately is the case. We will have to go back to the question of instilling discipline and morality from an early age. It is very difficult to change your habits once you get to adulthood. We have to find a way of persuading our men folk and women folk that they must change their behavioural patterns.
Q: Many AIDS activists focus on women in the fight against the pandemic, but Lesotho is a very male-oriented country, where in the rural areas many women do not have the right to say no. Should the campaign try more to get into dialogue with men?
A: Definitely. Men carry a huge responsibility. In the rural areas there are still people who believe that the male figure is the dominant one in the family and some women feel they are unable to say no to the man's sexual advances. We have to educate the male population, persuade them to try to change their habits and alert them about the dangers, not only to them, but to their spouses and possibly their children.
Q: It seems that also in Lesotho there is doubt about a link between HIV and AIDS. Are you yourself in doubt? Would it be fair to say that some Basotho leaders and intellectuals have this doubt?
A: I have no doubts about HIV causing AIDS. If you ask me to explain it medically, I cannot. But the medical and scientific explanations that we have received over the past 20 years has indicated that linkage, and I as a layman am not in a position to question it. I haven't heard anyone inside or outside government raising doubt about the linkage between HIV and AIDS.
Q: Your kingdom is surrounded by South Africa. In what way, if any, do you think that the policy of the South African government on the matter of AIDS affects your own government's policy?
A: It is not my responsibility or duty to comment on the policy of South Africa on this issue or any other issue for that matter. But we are surrounded by South Africa, a lot of our people work in South Africa in the mines where HIV/AIDS is quite prevalent, so we in Lesotho would like that the issue should be addressed in common. It affects all of us, because Basotho are working in South Africa and a lot of them come back HIV-positive from their work places, particularly in the mines. As a result it affects families here, their wives and consequently their children. Because of that we should work with them in a common approach. But their domestic policy is not an area that I am qualified to comment on.
Q:You seem to be among the leaders in the southern African region who is speaking loudest and clearest against HIV/AIDS. Could you wish for more commitment from other leaders?
A: From what I hear and from the discussions I had with other leaders, they are also concerned. I think they are also doing their part. I talk to His Majesty King Mswati (the King of Swaziland) quite often, and he is also involved and concerned. Although I don't attend SADC [Southern African Development Community] meetings, I'm told that the question of AIDS is also being discussed within SADC. We had an OAU [Organisation of African Unity] summit on AIDS, and I'm sure there are plans at that level to coordinate the fight against AIDS on this continent.
Q: With last year's AIDS drug trial in Pretoria [the South African capital] in mind, do you think developing countries should be given the opportunity to provide cheaper medicine to those infected? When will Lesotho be able to give antiretroviral drugs to its infected people? Do you think such medicine should be given to victims of rape?
A: I don't know when Lesotho will be able to provide antiretrovirals. I have not yet been informed or informed myself of the value of antiretrovirals, so it is difficult to say whether they should be given to victims of rape. I have read about antiretrovirals and heard what the South African government says and what the NGOs say, but I'm not in a position to give an educated answer. All I can say is whatever drugs are available that can be used to prolong life and provide better help for people infected with HIV/AIDS, there is no reason why we should not give such drugs, if we can get hold of them at affordable prices and if they are safe. I am sure common sense will dictate that we take that route.
Q: How do you see the queen's role in the fight against HIV/AIDS?
A: It is a very important role. She is young and will probably have more impact on the younger population, where the problem is more prevalent and where we really have to fight.
Q: Some people in Lesotho say that sex is the only entertainment for poor people and therefore AIDS is impossible to prevent as long as there is poverty. You have yourself linked poverty with AIDS. Do you fear that both poverty and the pandemic will get even worse, when many western countries cut down on aid?
A: I feel that poor countries have a huge battle in fighting this pandemic, because poverty goes with malnutrition and other factors which help HIV to thrive. Poor people by and large are illiterate and don't understand the messages written or even verbally [transmitted]. Poverty really does create a fertile environment for HIV/AIDS to thrive. That is why so many governments, including our own, are putting so much priority on poverty eradication or poverty alleviation. Until we can get more people off the poverty level, we have a big, big battle in front of us in this fight against HIV/AIDS.
Q: In the midst of this battle, how do you feel about western countries cutting aid assistance?
A: Western countries have their own priorities. They are led by elected governments consisting of politicians who are worried about their constituencies and whether they will be elected next time. As a recipient of aid we are worried of course. For the past 10 years or more we have been worried about this thing which is often called donor fatigue. At the same time it imposes a responsibility on Basotho and other Africans to try and be more self-reliant and more conscious of good governance. A lot of the money we have received as foreign assistance has not been effectively used. We have to use the resources that we generate ourselves in a better way. So while I am sad that western governments are cutting down on foreign assistance, I am hoping that we can wake up to the challenge of doing things for ourselves and be more responsible in the way we utilise our limited resources.
... For a country like Lesotho we should try to improve the home care, to empower the families with knowledge of caring for HIV/AIDS sick people, because people in Lesotho still believe strongly in the family unit ... This is something I like to stress, that people with HIV/AIDS should not be shunned, not be discriminated against, but cared for, protected and treated like anybody else.
This PlusNews interview was conducted by journalists Ulla Abildtrup and Peter Rathmann from MS Southern Africa. MS is the Danish Association for International Development Cooperation.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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