Abstinence Might Not Be The Best Policy

HIV in Underdeveloped CountriesMany of the nation’s leading performing artists are asking the U.S. Congress to roll back the Bush administration’s policy to fight HIV/AIDS worldwide, which requires abstinence from sex until marriage. The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) has allocated one third of U.S. global HIV prevention funds to abstinence-until-marriage programs that critics say have proven ineffective and have caused serious risks to women’s health.

An independent organization based in Washington, DC Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE) in collaboration with a group “Artists for a New South Africa” has written the letter which was signed by actors Chris Rock, Alfred Woodard, Gillian Anderson, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Dule Hill, Mary Steenburgen, Ted Danson, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Noah Gray-Cabey, Alexandra Paul, and musicians Jackson Brown and Bonnie Raitt and many others.

Currently, there are two bills awaiting approval of the Congress to reverse the Bush administration’s abstinence-related funding policy. If passed, the proposed Protection Against Transmission of HIV for Women and Youth (PATHWAY) Act in the House and the Senate’s HIV Prevention Act would change the way the funding is delivered.

Early indications show that the Bush administration would not be willing to lift the current restrictions on funding. But it is being widely observed that the White House will find it difficult to stick to it.

There is a notable rise in voice by women’s groups, religious organizations, and health advocacy groups against the notion that telling young people to abstain from sex until marriage is the best way to combat AIDS worldwide.

The Bush administration has consistently held that abstaining from sex until marriage is the best source of protection against AIDS. But researchers say that is an unrealistic goal in many of the most heavily impacted societies where faithfulness is rarely assured and women have little power in sexual situations — both inside and outside of marriages.

Researchers say the epidemic is now affecting more women than men by a large margin. Studies have also pointed out that women with HIV/AIDS suffer disproportionately from additional hardships, such as loss of income and property.

Last year, the United Nations reported that an estimated 39.5 million people in the world are living with HIV, which included 4.3 million newly infected. More than half of these new infections in 2006 — 2.8 million — occurred in sub-Saharan Africa, while significant increases were also reported in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Researchers said at the time that they found the highest rates of infection among those between the ages of 15 and 24, and married women in their 20s and 30s. The epidemic killed nearly 3 million people last year.

Washington’s current policy requires that 33 percent of all prevention funding be earmarked for abstinence and fidelity programs, both at home and abroad. Condoms may be recommended for high-risk groups, but not for sexually active people in general.

Both researchers and activists believe that the U.S. policy is partially responsible for the overall increase in the rate of HIV infection because in many areas prevention programs are not reaching out to those at risk.

According to UNAIDS, prevention efforts are reaching fewer than 20 percent of people in dire need.

Namit Agarwal