The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

AIDS, Africa & Abstinence-Only

I hate to say “I told you so” — especially in this case — but can we finally just admit this? It doesn’t fucking work. Can we go one step further and say that funding religious organizations to teach abstinence-only education and spread anti-condom propaganda in Africa is an act of genocide?

Remember a while back when I unpacked the rest of a post from Anderson Cooper’s blog, about a religious charity running a program in Africa for women with fistulas? Remember the rest of the story being the Bush administration’s suspension of funding for a UN program that served the same function, and leaving the door open for religious organizations to step in do do as they please. And how the faith-based organization featured in the post ran an HIV prevention program that focused on abstinence and little else?

Remember that the Bush administration has eliminated or weakened rules to protect the division of church and state, so that religious organizations can get federal money to “spread the gospel” on the taxpayers’ dime, while running health care operations that end up making treatment for serious diseases — like tuberculosis, AIDS and malaria — not just a matter of life and death, but a matter of faith as well? Remember that we’ve gone from funding the Great Society to funding the great commission?

Remember that I also included in that post mention of an HIV prevention educator who had the following experience while participating in a program in Uganda, run by a faith-based organization?

“Just remember, whatever you do, don’t mention condoms.”

I froze halfway inside the hot, dusty classroom in Kampala, Uganda. I turned to Crystal, the coordinator for ASK Africa, an initiative promoting HIV/AIDS awareness and education in Ugandan primary and secondary schools. I must have looked bewildered because she again made it clear that my impending speech about the ASK program could not include any shout-outs to the Trojan Man. Apparently the headmistress would be present, and as far as she is concerned, “safe sex” is an oxymoron.

…It’s bad enough that $1.3 billion has been spent domestically in the United States on these unproven and controversial abstinence-only programs, many of which are soiled with subliminal religious messages passed as scientific fact. But it’s criminal, even unpardonable, that we have forced our own policies on countries unable to deny them, undermining the potency of programs needing every resource at their disposal in their educational arsenal to adequately equip vulnerable populations against a virus that continues to purge their countries.

It gets worse as he goes on.

Yet, less than a month ago, data presented at the International AIDS Conference in Toronto confirmed that the tremendous gains Uganda made in the fight against HIV have withered away in the past five years — since Bush took the reins of U.S. policies. The cited reason? More unprotected sex, stemming mainly from a significant condom shortage that, according to Stephan Lewis, U.N. Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, is a crisis “being driven and exacerbated by the extreme policies that the administration in the United States is now pursuing.” Such statistics reiterate what past evidence from an array of countries have already shown: that abstinence-only education not only persistently fails to curb the AIDS pandemic, but increases the risk of it spreading by discouraging the use of contraceptives.

Of course, we knew that back in May Uganda’s AIDS epidemic was getting worse.

It is easy to see how Aids is responsible for creating a missing generation across Africa, devastating economies, and crippling health sectors as it strikes. Across the continent, 6,500 Africans are dying every day, the equivalent of a village being wiped from the map every 24 hours. A further 9,000 are infected each day by HIV/Aids, which is the leading cause of death in Africa.

In Uganda, 84 per cent of Aids victims contract the disease through heterosexual contacts. The men go first, followed by their wives. Fourteen per cent of children are infected by mother-to-child transmission. Up to 6.6 per cent of the adult population in Uganda is infected with HIV. If you are an adult male in Uganda suffering from Aids, you are unlikely to live beyond the age of 47.

… A second obstacle holding up progress is the issue of abstinence, with programmes in Africa promoted by the Christian right wing in America and advocated by such prominent politicians as Colin Powell, the former secretary of state.

Ugandans were once told that “the slims” could be kept at bay through the ABC strategy of “Abstain, Be faithful and wear Condoms” . But now, thanks to US-funded programmes which carry ideological conditions, the condoms are literally being thrown away, and HIV-Aids infections are on the rise again.

Well, according to this WaPo article, now it appears that while some African countries are making advances against the epidemic, Uganda is falling behind and paying the price for tax-payer funded proselytizing.

That good news was offset by troubling signs that the first African country to reverse the epidemic, Uganda, is experiencing a resurgence of infection, as is Thailand, another early success story.

…But the pendulum swing underway in Uganda and Thailand appears to mark a new phase in the 25-year-old AIDS epidemic.

“It should not be a surprise that the countries first to show success will be the first to have a rebound and show problems,” said Peter Piot, director of UNAIDS, the program run by the United Nations and the World Bank. “It is something that I am really very worried about.”

He and other epidemiologists are trying to learn whether the resurgence of infection in the two nations is a demographic copy of the first wave of AIDS cases or represents the spread of infection to new groups. They are also trying to understand how big a part “prevention fatigue” may be playing in the trend.

“We really don’t have an idea why it is happening,” Piot said.

Prevention fatigue? We don’t have an idea why it is happening? Really? Well, in the case of Uganda, we have an idea, and prevention propaganda, as the article points out, shares a portion of the blame.

In Uganda, the national prevalence is 6.7 percent — a steep decline from a decade ago, attributed to fewer sex partners, later “sexual debut” by teenagers, increased condom use and rising AIDS mortality through the 1990s. Now, however, AIDS prevalence is rising in some populations, such as rural men (up from 5.6 to 6.5 percent) and rural women (6.9 percent to 8.8 percent), according to recent surveys.

Piot said Uganda also suffered from a period of “decreased credibility” of condoms, the consequence of messages by some fundamentalist groups, a run of defective condoms and then a shortage of condoms.

But it doesn’t matter if “abstinence-only” doesn’t result in a reduction of AIDS infections. Prevention is not the point, as has been pointed out before.

At Reclaiming America for Christ, Stenzel told her audience about a conversation she’d had with a skeptical businessman on an airplane. The man had asked about abstinence education’s success rate—a question she regarded as risible. “What he’s asking,” she said, “is does it work. You know what? Doesn’t matter. Cause guess what. My job is not to keep teenagers from having sex. The public schools’ job should not be to keep teens from having sex.” Then her voice rose and turned angry as she shouted, “Our job should be to tell kids the truth!”

“People of God,” she cried, “can I beg you, to commit yourself to truth, not what works! To truth! I don’t care if it works, because at the end of the day I’m not answering to you, I’m answering to God!”

Later in the same talk, she explained further why what “works” isn’t what’s important—and gave some insight into what she means by “truth.” “Let me tell you something, people of God, that is radical, and I can only say it here,” she said. “AIDS is not the enemy. HPV and a hysterectomy at twenty is not the enemy. An unplanned pregnancy is not the enemy. My child believing that they can shake their fist in the face of a holy God and sin without consequence, and my child spending eternity separated from God, is the enemy. I will not teach my child that they can sin safely.”

Because to “sin safely” and survive would be a shame. Better to save a soul than save a life.

It can be said that abstinence is the only way to avoid unwanted pregnancy, STDs, and other consequences of sexual activity (assuming that sexual activity is consensual). But it must also be said that people do not deserve to die because they will not practice abstinence (or cannot, if you consider that the vast majority of human beings are not inclined towards or cut out for celibacy).

It must also be said that people who choose to be sexually active deserve accurate information —untinged by ideology — on how to reduce risk for themselves and their partners, even if presented alongside abstinence information. It must also be said that to provide them with less — let alone paying faith-based organizations to provide them with less, and making it easier for those organizations to do so — is as best irresponsible. At worst, it’s an act of violence.

But given the number of lives at stake, and the knowledge that abstinence-only doesn’t work and the disregard for evidence of that, does it approach an act of genocide? Yet?

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