Apr 072005
Authors: Meg Burd

Imagine this: An epidemic of disease is sweeping across the world. There are a variety of useful things one might do to keep safe from this disease.

While people are learning about this deadly epidemic in school, however, the government has ordered that the whole arsenal of defense is not to be taught. Only one method of protecting oneself from the disease is explained. Potentially lifesaving information is purposefully withheld, and some curriculum even goes so far as to pass off myths and misinformation about preventative methods.

This doesn't sound like a very effective strategy to combat something as deadly as HIV/AIDS, does it?

Unfortunately, this is exactly what is happening as the United States and other governments around the world present "abstinence-only" approaches to fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic. As Uganda more heavily begins to promote its U.S.-funded "abstinence-only" programs, concerns about the fact that potentially life-saving information is being deliberately left out of curriculum are only growing, as a recent Human Rights Watch report pointed out.

Seen as dangerous and irresponsible by many health professionals and scientific-community members, this "abstinence-only" program being pursued by both our and other governments is very troubling for a variety of reasons. There is no excuse for places of learning restricting scientifically backed information, particularly potentially life-saving information, to act on an agenda that concludes there is only one lifestyle that is suitable.

The administration and many in Congress are pushing heavily for programs that restrict sexual education in schools to be limited to information on abstaining from sex or "saving sex until marriage." Such curriculum does not mention such things as condom use.

Teachers are, in some cases, restricted from (or pressured to avoid) mentioning condoms as a viable protection resource against unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. In curriculum taught in Texas, for example, teachers reported to Human Rights Watch that the only mention they can officially make of condoms are to emphasize the failure rates in such contraceptive approaches. All other questions students have about condoms or condom use are deflected, with students being told to "ask their parents or a counselor."

Organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Planned Parenthood and public health coalitions have all repeatedly expressed concern over this limitation of information, and indeed, concerns have only increased as the U.S. funds "abstinence-only" programs in Uganda and ended condom donation programs to the Philippines.

In Uganda, fear of an increase in HIV/AIDS outbreaks grows among human rights groups as programs restricting sexual health information to abstinence only begin, thanks to $8 million from the United States to sponsor such programs. Researcher Tony Tate said in a recent Human Rights Watch Report that, "Uganda is gradually removing condoms from its HIV/AIDS strategy, and the consequences could be fatal.

Ugandan government restrictions on condom imports have created serious condom shortages, and schools are teaching that condoms have "microscopic pores" that do not protect against HIV/AIDS. The president and his wife have said that teaching children about condoms serves only to "confuse them." President Yoweri Museveni went so far as to call condoms "inappropriate" for Ugandans, and his wife is even promoting the idea of virginity testing among girls.

Uganda, which has previously been seeing a drop in AIDS infections, could see these numbers unfortunately climb higher if comprehensive sexual health information is not promoted in schools and to the public. However, said Ugandan activists and researchers in a Chicago Tribune report by Laurie Goering: "In a nation with nearly a million AIDS orphans – some of whom sell sex to survive – and many more teenagers who fail to abstain, the decision to deny children information about condoms threatens to send HIV infection rates up again."

In the Philippines, similar concerns are growing as "natural family planning" programs and again, U.S.-sponsored "abstinence- only" programs are being promoted. The condom shortage similarly continues to grow, as the United States refuses to donate shipments of the potentially life-saving contraceptives. "Silence and lies about condoms undermine HIV prevention for all Filipinos, and condom shortages condemn the poorest to facing the highest risk," said Human Rights Watch researcher Jonathan Cohen in a recent report.

"Abstinence- only programs are a triumph of ideology over public health," Jonathan Cohen, a researcher with Human Right's Watch notes.

Examining similar programs here in the United States, it has been found that "abstinence- only" as a methodology of sexual education is not more effective in preventing teenage sexual activity, and indeed, recent reports have found that misinformation about sexual health is being promoted by such programs.

In this column next week, these "abstinence- only" programs of America will be discussed further.

Meg Burd is an anthropology graduate student. Her column runs every Friday in the Collegian.

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