Uganda's First Lady Janet Museveni sounds a lot like President Bush and his minions in the Christian right.
Mrs. Museveni is on a mission to ensure that the only method of preventing HIV and AIDS in her country is through strict adherence to abstinence-only education for everyone. Sound familiar?
The First Lady of Uganda is a Born-again Christian who equates condom use with murder. She also offers scholarships to girls in her country who can prove they are virgins; something to which George Bush can only aspire.
On World AIDS Day this year, Mrs. Museveni told students at the Uganda Christian University, Mukono, "I would not be caught advising you to take any shortcuts or compromise your lives by using any device invented by man, such as condoms, in order to facilitate any desire to go against God's clear plan for your life."
At least the 130,000 Ugandans in her country infected with HIV last year can feel comforted by the fact that it was "God's clear plan" for their lives. It is hard to imagine, however, why the plan included dramatically increasing the numbers of Ugandans infected with HIV, from 70,000 just four years ago.
Connecting the dots is relatively easy: In 2004, Uganda firmly adopted the U.S. abstinence-only-until-marriage approach to HIV/AIDS prevention education. And when they did, they found themselves the recipient of a conditional cash cow in the form of millions of dollars from the Bush administration with a mandate to spend over 30 percent of the prevention funds for "abstinence-only" projects.
Uganda attracted the attention of the Bush administration earlier on when the country's rates of HIV were decreasing dramatically due in large part to their "A-B-C" approach to HIV/AIDS education: Abstain- Be Faithful – or use a Condom. This logical and scientifically supported approach to HIV prevention was overwhelmingly successful. Condom distribution increased by 4 million each year; young people were remaining abstinent for 18 months longer than before; and rates of HIV plummeted from one in five in 1992 to one in twenty in 2001 (The Independent, December 10, 2006).
Those are some impressive results. What went wrong? Why did a country, led by the Musevenis then as now, seem to abandon all reason in favor of a reliance on religious righteousness to combat their AIDS epidemic?
Many Ugandans themselves are baffled. "We have worked so hard to get people to understand HIV and that there are three options open to them: A, B or C," says Dr Henry Katamba. "That's Abstain from sex, Be faithful or use a Condom, whichever is the one for you. That's what our government used to say – and everyone understood. The message recognized that it wasn't realistic to ask for abstinence from everyone who's not married."
In 2004, Uganda drafted their ode to the U.S. Christian Right, "Uganda National Abstinence and Being Faithful Policy and Strategy on Prevention of Transmission on HIV." The document was supposed to be a companion to the country's existing policy encouraging condom use as well as abstinence and fidelity. A closer look at the policy reveals a disturbing truth. The definition of abstinence education in Uganda's policy matches almost word for word the definition of abstinence education outlined in the U.S. Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. In fact, a recent report by the progressive Political Research Associates, outlines a sneaky strategy by a growing number of Christian Right NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to influence U.N. family planning and HIV prevention programs by advocating for a world-wide abstinence-only family planning program.
It's not so surprising then that the amount of money Uganda has received from the Bush administration has more than doubled in the last two years to almost $170 million since the inception of this harmful policy. These funds helped pay for an HIV prevention program for school children that was specifically purged of any references to condoms; funding also went towards a popular radio program designed to provide family planning information and education which was forced to eliminate any mention of condoms from its shows.
These damaging policies drafted by a cohort of religious zealots across nations have real consequences. While the abstinence message may work for some, it is not the appropriate message for many others – in particular, young girls who live in poverty who must sell their bodies as young as nine years old to make money for the family, refugee women from neighboring African countries who rely on prostitution as their means of survival, and married women for whom fidelity is completely at the whim of their husbands who regularly engage in unprotected sex outside of their marriage. For these and many other Ugandans, abstinence-only-until-marriage is a judgmental and irrelevant refrain that serves only to stigmatize their plight and place them directly in harm's way.
Reproductive rights and health advocates have done an excellent job here in the United States at revealing the injurious and ineffective nature of our abstinence-only-until-marriage emphasis in sexuality education, specifically around HIV/AIDS prevention. While little has been done to combat the effects of these policies globally, Democrats have recently called for an investigation into the Bush administration's faith-based initiative potentially being used to create "converts" overseas. Hopefully, health activists in both the United States and Uganda will unify on behalf of the vulnerable populations in developing nations. First Lady Janet Museveni and her colleagues in Uganda and the United States must recognize that their holier-than-thou moralizing is a poor prevention tool in the fight against HIV and AIDS around the world.
Editor's note: Check out the Protection Against Transmission of HIV for Women and Youth (PATHWAY) Act and PEPFAR Watch for more information on U.S. global HIV/AIDS policy.