Abstaining from Reality

Standing in a gilded stateroom in London's Westminster Palace was a slight young woman from Kenya named Juliet Awuor, preparing to tell her story to members of Parliament, heads of British and international NGOs and the press. It was early March and Population Action International's latest documentary—Abstaining from Reality: U.S. Restrictions on HIV Prevention—was making its worldwide premiere in the U.K, followed by events in the Parliaments of Denmark and Sweden. Juliet, who never in her 24 years had left Kenya, had bravely flown to London so she could share her story of contracting HIV the very first time she had sex because neither she nor her boyfriend knew how to use a condom.

Filmed last summer in Kenya and Uganda by former PAI staffer and current National Geographic filmmaker Daniele Anastasion and produced by PAI's Sr. Policy Research Analyst Wendy Turnbull, Abstaining from Reality provides a snapshot of the Bush administration's abstinence-only approach to HIV prevention as part of its global HIV/AIDS assistance. The nine-minute documentary examines how these ideologically-driven programs are actually endangering the lives of the people they're supposed to be protecting. With the recent resignation of Ambassador Randall Tobias as USAID administrator and the upcoming reauthorization hearings on PEPFAR (President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), the film has unexpected urgency and poignancy.

Juliet recalls watching her life story onscreen in London: "As I watched the documentary for the first time, I felt like crying all over again but I kept saying to myself that I'm through with crying. I felt so honored to be in Parliament with all those people watching my story." The film's depiction of government-funded programs that emphasize abstinence for young people and faithfulness for married couples left many Europeans in tears.

Now PAI is launching the film in the United States, beginning with an event on Capitol Hill on May 15. Working with partner organizations including SIECUS, amfAR, Planned Parenthood Golden Gate, IWHC, San Francisco AIDS Foundation and many others, PAI will take the film to New York City, San Francisco and Ottawa in the coming weeks. Although Juliet was denied a visa to visit the United States, she will attend the screening in Canada.

Rosemarie Muganda Onyando, Director of the Centre for the Study of Adolescence in Kenya, and a key commentator in the documentary, will be speaking at all of the U.S. events. In the film, Rosemarie says, "To strictly say abstinence only is like walking into a hospital ward and having all these patients with different ailments and saying, ‘Okay, this is a prescription, it is the same prescription for all of you.'"

Few people who have seen the film have not been moved by Juliet's story and by the urgent need to eliminate the abstinence-only approach that is clearly undermining efforts to prevent HIV transmission. In Europe, several people asked us, "Why does the U.S. government insist on these flawed policies?" It will be interesting to see how U.S. audiences react. There is power in showing a human face when talking about policies.

As for Juliet, she is indomitable. Despite losing a baby and suffering a stroke soon after her HIV diagnosis, despite living in a poor neighborhood of Nairobi devoid of most public services we take for granted, she is filled with confidence and plans for the future. "I am hoping to go to university and get a career," she says. "I hope to study mass communications and counseling for youth. I hope that one day I'm going to change my family's life."

Watch our preview below or go catch the full version of "Abstaining from Reality." It may well change your life.

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  • masimba-biriwasha

    To promote abstinence only is a hard sell, but as activists we must be careful not to throw out the strategy because of the way its been packaged by the Bush administration. Promoting abstinence is still an essential component but its important to appreciate the realities and provide communties with tools that they can utilize just in case abstinence fails.


    Take the first step in faith. You don't have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.

    – Martin Luther King Jr.

  • invalid-0

    Abstinence only education is a denial of the sexual and reproductive health rights of adolescents and youths. The UN bodies should stand up against this US government uncommon and unacceptable policy. The next Global AIDS Week of Action should also be used by development workers to condemn the Bush Administration on this.

    Why shy away from the truth?

  • masimba-biriwasha

    I guess the point is that abstinence must not be forced upon adolescents but must be presented as one of the options that are available. Adolescents must be given the full knowledge of what it takes to be abstinent, just as much as they are taught to correctly use condoms and other prevention methods.

    There's not just one way to ensure the sexual and reproductive health rights of adolescents and youth. Young people, especially in economically depressed communities, need to be continously taught how to value their bodies.

    Put simply, communities must be given the full spectrum of the options that are available.  


    Take the first step in faith. You don't have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.

    – Martin Luther King Jr.

  • invalid-0

    As stated in many International Declarations, every individual all over the world – including youth – deserves the right to make informed choice about his or her sexual and reproductive health and rights.

    The responsiblity of every government, institutions and organizations is to make every effort to ensure that this right is respected by ensuring the availability of comprehensive information and services.

    Abstinence is one of those choices BUT definitely not the only one. Comprehensive sexuality education and services – that includes abstinence and other choices – still remain the only way (for youth) to overcome many of the sexual and reproductive health challenges including HIV infection.

  • invalid-0

    I feel strongly that abstinence is a very good option but the question is eventhough a higher percentage of HIV contractions is through sex, is it the only way one can get the virus? Another important thing to note here is that, we should not just preach abstinence and hope people are abstaining. How can one know whether the person abstaining now has gotten the virus already?
    These are things to consider, The options should all be stated clearly for people to make their own choices but rather they should be well informed choices.

    Freddie, Accra,Ghana