By William Fisher
Central America and Uganda this week became the latest targets for right-wing leaders to blast HIV-AIDS prevention efforts that stray from the Bush Administration’s “abstinence-only” ideology.
One of the country’s most influential faith-based organizations, Focus on the Family (FOF), charged that a U.S. not-for-profit group, Advocates for Youth, “is asking its members and supporters to contact key Ugandan health and government officials and urge them to more fully embrace condoms and other forms of birth control.”
FOF quoted the Advocates for Youth website, which says, "There is no evidence that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs work," the states, adding that support must be given to "science-based HIV prevention strategies" rather than "ineffective abstinence-only-until-marriage programs."
Peter Brandt, FOF’s senior director of government and public policy, said the group is flatly misstating reality in order to promote its condoms-first agenda.
"What the studies bear out is that abstinence works every time in preventing the spread of HIV and all other sexually transmitted diseases," he said. "Condoms aren't a solution to the problem of young people dying; they're a politically correct cause for those on the political left."
Focus on the Family, led by televangelist Rev. James Dobson, claimed that Uganda “once had the highest HIV-infection rates in the world -- 30 percent in some regions. But through the government's strong abstinence policy, rates have plummeted—from 21.2 percent among pregnant women in 1991 to 6.1 percent in 2001.”
It said the general population has also seen a decline to around 7 percent. “And that number figures to drop further, since studies show a third of Ugandan college students are keeping their abstinence pledges.”
In a related development, right-wing Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, demanded that the United States stop financing a Central American HIV-AIDS prevention program, run by Population Services International (PSI), a nonprofit group.
In a letter to President George W. Bush, Coburn -- a medical doctor -- complained about PSI’s “Noches Vives” and other programs. Noches means nights; Vives is a brand of condoms. Because most prostitutes in poor countries don't show up at local clinics to ask for condoms, PSI sponsors Noches Vives, sending aid workers to bars, brothels and other places where prostitutes congregate. They go from table to table, handing out condoms, sometimes using bananas as props, show people how to use them.
Coburn wrote that PSI’s funding is up for renewal, and PSI has applied for tens of millions more to continue the project," adding, “There is something seriously askew at USAID when the agency's response to a dehumanizing and abusive practice that exploits women and young girls is parties and games."
"It's a simple activity for largely illiterate people," said Michael Holscher, regional executive director for P.S.I. "We can't just stand up in a bar and say, 'AIDS will kill you.' With an interactive activity, we can hold their attentions, sometimes for as long as an hour."
Shortly after Mr. Coburn's letter, USAID cut off money for the program.
Rev. Tim Simpson of the newly-formed Christian Alliance, told IPS, "This is an absolutely tragic situation that is being compounded by the extremist ethics of Christian fundamentalists, who place sexual purity ahead of saving lives. The scourge of HIV/AIDS ought not be the occasion for trotting out the right wing's failed attempts at abstinence education. They don't seem to be nearly as concerned about Africans dying as they are about keeping Africans from having sex outside of marriage. But one infected prostitute can destroy the lives of hundreds of people in a very short period of time, so there is no question that the need is acute. It is time that the US government stops listening to groups like Focus on the Family and instead starts focusing on reality."
The Coburn action came on the heels of a lawsuit challenging the
government’s “anti-prostitution” policy, charging that it is an ”unconstitutional infringement of speech” that is undermining international efforts to stem the spread of HIV/AIDS.
The NGO, DKT International, filed the suit in the District Court of the District of Columbia against USAID and its administrator, challenging the requirement that U.S. and foreign NGOs receiving USAID funding from adopt a policy “explicitly opposing prostitution and sex trafficking.”
USAID adopted the rule requirement in June, as one of a number of policies advocated by the ‘pro-life’ religious right. Other Bush Administration initiatives include endorsement of the so-called Mexico Protocol, which forbids abortion counseling in family planning programs overseas.
U.S. observance of the protocol -- termed “the global gag rule” by family planning professionals -- was rescinded during the Clinton Administration but
re-authorized under President George W. Bush on his first day in office in January 2001.
Under the rule, foreign family planning agencies may not receive U.S. funds if, with their own funds, they counsel on or refer for abortion, advocate for more lenient abortion laws in their own country, or provide abortion services.
DKT’s president, Philip D. Harvey, said the anti-prostitution and sex trafficking policy “does a grave disservice to international AIDs-prevention programs and to those who carry them out. The policy does no good, and is clearly doing considerable harm.”
He told IPS,” I have found that non-governmental organizations around the world really despise this anti-prostitution pledge. In addition to making their work harder, it undermines their integrity, insults them really.”
DKT International is a non-profit organization based in Washington DC. It manages contraceptive social marketing programs for family planning and AIDS prevention in eleven countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. DKT’s programs currently serve just under 10 million couples, with an operating budget of $50 million.
“By coercing the speech of private parties”, he added, “The policy violates the First Amendment rights -- and the integrity -- of the organizations that are forced into compliance.”
As a result of refusing to adopt (and certify) USAID’s policy on prostitution, DKT lost USAID support for its AIDS-prevention work in Vietnam. Its lawsuit seeks injunctive relief to permit it to resume this work.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the anti-abortion Population Research Institute (PRI) is making plans to establish a pro-life office in Kabul “to assist Afghan women and families in their fight against the anti-natal agenda of UN agencies and anti-child NGOs.”
PRI said, “The recent legalization of abortion by Kabul's interim government was the catalyst…Abortion in Afghanistan is now legal up to the third month of pregnancy. Although, according to reports, three doctors must certify that the abortion is a medical necessity, such regulations have quickly degenerated in other countries to abortion on demand.”