Human Rights Watch Report Criticizes Uganda for Supporting U.S.-Funded Abstinence-Based AIDS Prevention Programs
The New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch in a report released on Wednesday criticized the Ugandan government for "making a worrying shift" toward focusing its HIV/AIDS prevention efforts on U.S.-funded abstinence-only education programs, in effect undermining efforts to promote condom use, the AP/Independent Online reports. In the 80-page report -- titled "The Less They Know, the Better: Abstinence-Only HIV/AIDS Programs in Uganda" -- HRW accuses Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and his wife, Janet, of "falling under the influence of U.S. Christian conservatives" and putting "millions" of Ugandan residents at risk of contracting HIV by focusing primarily on abstinence in prevention programs, according to the AP/Independent Online (Wasswa, AP/Independent Online, 3/29). Uganda for nearly 20 years has employed the "ABC" HIV/AIDS prevention strategy, which stands for abstinence, be faithful, use condoms. Many observers have credited the program with helping to reduce the country's HIV prevalence rate from about 30% of adults in the early 1990s to under 10% currently (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 2/24). However, the report says that the country's focus on abstinence-only education is "jeopardizing" the Ugandan government's success in lowering the country's HIV prevalence, according to AFP/Yahoo! News (AFP/Yahoo! News, 3/29). The programs "leave Uganda's children at risk" of contracting HIV, Jonathan Cohen, an HIV/AIDS researcher with HRW and a co-author of the report, said, adding, "Abstinence messages should complement other HIV prevention strategies, not undermine them." Cohen also called Uganda's new strategy "a triumph of ideology over public health" (Wallis, Reuters, 3/30).
According to the report, youth rallies sponsored by the Ugandan government have questioned the effectiveness of condoms in preventing HIV transmission, London's Guardian reports (Boseley, Guardian, 3/30). The report also criticizes Museveni for repeatedly making disparaging comments in 2004 about condoms' effectiveness in preventing HIV/AIDS, which the report says has influenced school teachers to focus on abstinence as the only method of HIV prevention education, the AP/Independent Online reports. As a result, young people are not getting adequate information about HIV/AIDS prevention, according to the report (AP/Independent Online, 3/29). "The effect of Uganda's new direction in HIV prevention is thus to replace the existing sound public health strategies with unproven and potentially life-threatening messages, impeding the realization of the right to information to the highest attainable standard of health and to life," the report says, according to New Vision/AllAfrica.com (New Vision/AllAfrica.com, 3/28). Uganda -- which receives about $8 million in U.S. funding annually for abstinence programs directed at youth -- "is gradually removing condoms from its HIV/AIDS strategy, and the consequences could be fatal," Tony Tate, an HRW children's rights division researcher and a co-author of the report, said. "Delaying sex is surely a healthy choice for young Ugandans, but youth have a right to know that there are other effective means of HIV prevention," he added (Goering, Chicago Tribune, 3/30).
Officials and church leaders in Uganda called the HRW report "seriously flawed," saying it lacks "factual basis," according to the AP/Independent Online (AP/Independent Online, 3/29). "The president and the first lady are being misunderstood," Museveni spokesperson Onapito Ekomoloit said, adding, "They have been consistent in advocating for a multipronged approach. [Museveni] says those who are sexually active should be faithful. Others should abstain, and those who cannot abstain should use condoms" (Guardian, 3/30). Dr. Alex Opio, assistant commissioner for Uganda's National Disease Control, said there has been "no change" in the government's approach to HIV/AIDS prevention, according to NewVision/AllAfrica.com. "The government policy is A for abstinence, B for be faithful and C for condoms," he said (New Vision/AllAfrica.com, 3/28). Opio also denied that the Ugandan government "discourag[es]" the use of condoms, adding that it imports 80 million of the 120 million condoms used in the country annually, according to AFP/Yahoo! News (AFP/Yahoo! News, 3/29).