Condom conundrum

Can a condom bar raise awareness about HIV in India?

In Chandigarh, north India, a study has revealed that 30 per cent of students in the city practise unprotected sex. So I was cheered to learn that a group aiming to raise awareness of HIV/Aids is to launch a condom bar. My enthusiasm was short-lived. The man in charge of setting up the bar could not, he said, discuss the issue with "a lady".

How, I wondered, did he intend to raise awareness among women without speaking to them?

I asked around. Mayank Kaushik, a male student at the city's Panjab University, was not surprised by the response I had received. "Nobody here talks about sex openly. I'm 19 and my parents have never talked to me about safe sex," he confessed. Aseem Aggarwal, another young man from the university, wasn't shocked either, and put me right on Indian etiquette: "It is quite natural that a man did not discuss details with you. You should have spoken about this only to a woman."

Worse was to come when I spoke to young female students. They shied away from offering any opinion at all on condoms.

Undeterred, the Chandigarh authorities have installed 22 condom vending machines in the city, including near the campus. But, without the accompanying education for both sexes, the project seems doomed. One student told me: "Condoms are not used for protection against STDs, but I have seen children making balloons out of them."

India recently outstripped South Africa as the country with the highest number of people living with HIV - 5.7 million at the end of 2005, according to the United Nations. And the rate of infection is increasing rapidly. Mayank believes the Aids crisis is exacerbated by young people's reluctance to talk about sex. Theresa Lacey, of the New Delhi-based Naz Foundation, which focuses on HIV/Aids awareness among students, talks of the importance of reaching the women among them: "Many are too scared to propose condom use. It is a taboo topic."

The fear is that the good intentions of such NGOs and the bravery of initiatives such as the Chandigarh condom bar will count for little if campaigners refuse to discuss condoms with "ladies".

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.