Uganda Says Focus on Abstinence Does Not Harm Anti-AIDS Effort

By Stephen Mbogo | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

Nairobi, Kenya ( - Uganda has challenged arguments by human rights campaigners who claim that the government's strategy of promoting sexual abstinence ahead of condom use is setting back efforts to combat AIDS.

There had been no change in the country's widely-praised program aimed at bringing down the infection rate, a Ugandan diplomat here said, calling the claims' "misrepresentation."

"Our AIDS prevention policy is still based on 'ABC' - Abstinence, be Faithful, use Condoms. Nothing has changed," said the official at the Ugandan Embassy, who spoke on condition on anonymity.

The diplomat agreed that the national focus is, and has been, on abstinence and faithfulness, rather than encouraging the use of condom as a first prevention option.

"We are careful not to create a culture of 'condom mania' in Uganda."

The New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report released last week that U.S.-supported abstinence-only programs "leave Uganda's children at risk of HIV."

It said that critical HIV/AIDS information had been removed from primary school curricula, including information about condoms and the risks of HIV within marriage.

Draft secondary-school materials alleged that the HIV virus could permeate latex condoms' microscopic pores and that pre-marital sex was deviant.

"HIV/AIDS rallies sponsored by the U.S. government spread similar falsehoods," the report charged.

Human Rights Watch said Ugandan teachers told the group's investigators that they had been instructed by U.S. contractors not to discuss condoms in schools.

"Abstinence messages should complement other HIV-prevention strategies, not undermine them," one of the authors, Jonathan Cohen, said in a statement.

Ugandan presidential spokesman Onapito Ekomoloit has also denied the claims, saying the government had been consistent in advocating a multi-pronged approach - "those who are sexually active should be faithful to their partners, others should abstain and those who cannot abstain should use condoms."

Ekomoloit said President Yoweri Museveni and first lady Janet Museveni, who have spearheaded abstinence campaigns, "have been misunderstood."

The Musevenis have in the past publicly denounced condom promotion as an anti-AIDS strategy, terming it irresponsible and ineffective.

Alex Opio, assistant commissioner for Uganda's Center for National Disease Control, was quoted as saying that, contrary to the report's assertions, Uganda had imported 120 million condoms in 2004, 80 million of which were ordered by the government.

Uganda's program is regarded as highly successful, having reduced the rate of HIV infections from 30 percent of the population in the 1990s to the current levels of around six percent.

Much of the success is attributed to "ABC" model.

Church of Uganda program officer Mary Kamuhangire said that if people were told to use condoms to prevent HIV infections, they should also be told how abstinence can stop new infections.

"What we teach is that if you cannot abstain, use a condom - but what we encourage is abstinence," Kamuhangire said.

Abstinence as a strategy to prevent sexually-transmitted diseases grew out of a U.S. Christian movement known as True Love Waits, which began 1993.

According to the True Love Waits website, part of the campaign involves teenagers making a pledge to remain sexually pure by signing covenant cards that read: "Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate, and my future children to be sexually abstinent from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship."

The strategy was introduced to Uganda in 1994, at a time the nation had the highest HIV infection rates in the world.

In neighboring Kenya, anti-AIDS campaigners have intensified an abstinence campaign focused especially on school-age children, while promoting condom use and the need for HIV testing among young adults.

HIV rates in Kenya have dropped from 15 percent of the population three years ago to seven percent, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.

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