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Abstinence Fails as Anti-AIDS policy

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Current Bush administration policy on the global fight against AIDS is failing, a new study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) shows. This conclusion confims the fears of both human rights activists and anti-AIDS groups.

Since coming to power, the Bush administration has used foreign aid to force other governments to adopt so-called abstinence education programs.

The State Department requires that two-thirds of funding devoted to preventing the sexual transmission of AIDS must be spent on programs that encourage abstinence and fidelity. Further, according to the Global AIDS Alliance, the State Department is requiring countries to cut back on existing programs that provide education and condoms to already sexually active people.

A public statement issued earlier this month by Global AIDS Alliance noted a GAO survey of 17 countries that receive aid from the US government for anti-AIDS work. GAO found that most of the countryies view the policy of teaching condom use along with abstinence made little sense.

Many countries participating in the survey told the GAO that State Department requirements diminish the effectiveness of all of these education programs.

Global AIDS Alliance director, Dr. Paul Zeitz called for congressional intervention to reverse State Department requirements. "There has been deep concern with this policy," Zeitz said, "from the European Union, UN officials, African experts, religious organizations and others, and it has been fully justified."

"Lives are in the balance, and so we need Congress to step in quickly to fix this policy," he said.

In October 2003, the Senate considered a more flexible approach by funding programs that simply place a priority on refraining from sexual activity before marriage and scaled back prohibitions on condom use education. But, under pressure from the Bush administration and Republican Senate leadership, the amendment was narrowly defeated.

The Global AIDS Alliance also notes with great concern reductions in funding for anti-AIDS programs unrelated to abstinence education, even as overall funding has grown. Inflexible requirements enacted by the 2006 budget for funding linked to abstinence programs could see a "worsening" of the problems documented by the GAO, warns the Global AIDS Alliance.

Human rights advocates have charged that abstinence education programs, which refuse to teach safe and effective condom use as part of their curriculum, actually may increase the risk of sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS among their students.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has found that by not providing information on all of the ways to prevent exposure to STDs, including effective condom use, abstinence programs do not adequately prepare young people to protect themselves for when they do become sexually active.

In the US, a 2002 HRW study found, that abstinence education programs received millions of dollars and amounted, for the most part, to religious indoctrination and anti-gay messages from Republican Party oriented churches and church groups. Federal funds have also been provided to spread misleading information about condoms and birth control, over the objections of medical doctors and social work experts.

A 2002 lawsuit in Louisiana filed by the ACLU against former Louisiana Governor Mike Foster and the Rapides Station Community Ministries charged this recipient of federal and state money with teaching religion in place of sex education. A federal judge supported the view that the group had crossed the Constitutional barrier between church and state and ordered the group to stop advancing its religious doctrines.

Globally, abstinence education programs have been touted by the Bush administration for declining AIDS rates in Uganda, a close ally of the Bush adminsitration on the abstinence education front and a recipient of millions of dollars in State Department funding.

In a report released last year, HRW found, however, that "Uganda is redirecting its HIV prevention strategy for young people away from scientifically proven and effective strategies toward ideologically driven programs that focus primarily on promoting sexual abstinence until marriage."

While Ugandan officials initiated an abstinence education program they claimed would supplement its condom distribution programs, HRW found that "the policy in fact undermines condoms as an HIV prevention measure." Confusion and ambiguity reigned, and the overall effectiveness of anti-AIDS education was weakened, as the GAO would later find in many other countries receiving abstinence funding.

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--Joel Wendland is editor of Political Affairs.
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