A faith-based approach to AIDS prevention is gradually making itself felt in the politics and programs involved in the fight against the disease in Africa.
Even before President George Bush made the fight against AIDS in Africa a national priority during his state of the union address in January, the issue had taken hold among religious groups. The Christian Century (Feb. 22) reports that American evangelicals have particularly taken to the AIDS relief cause because of their ties to mission work in Africa. In fact, it was at the urging of evangelical Wheaton College, through its alumnus and Bush speech writer Michael Gerson, that Bush put the spotlight on the African AIDS issue in his speech calling for $15 billion in aid over the next five years.
The abstinence-based approach to sex education and AIDS prevention that evangelicals have championed in the U.S. is particularly likely to gain a greater hearing throughout Africa, reports the National Review (Feb. 10). Rod Dreher writes that without much international assistance African nations such as Uganda, Zambia and Senegal had dramatically lowered the AIDS infection rate in the 1990s through home-grown prevention programs that stressed sexual abstinence (although in many cases also allowing for condom use).
Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni invited Christian and Muslim clergymen and other community groups to be an integral part of his prevention program, asking them to “preach even more forthrightly to Ugandans about the need to abstain from premarital sex and be faithful to their partners.” The international drive for prevention through condom use did not take off until the mid-1990s — well after the prevalence of HIV had begun to decline in these countries. The AIDS and medical establishment has, until recently, ignored these African programs, sometimes even viewing religious faith as an impediment to prevention and treatment (as is the case when AIDS was initially stigmatized by some religious groups as being a sign of God’s punishment).
But with the African AIDS crisis worsening in sub-Saharan Africa, secular researchers are confirming the value of these local programs along with the use of condoms, particularly as demonstrated by the Ugandan case. Officials open to these ideas and programs “have taken charge of significant public-health agencies,” writes Dreher. The Bush administration and USAID are openly embracing what is called the “A.B.C. strategy” (Abstain, Be faithful to your partner or use a Condom).
Some fear that the Bush administration may emphasize abstinence to the exclusion of condoms, instead of taking the more balanced approach suggested by the data. Ray Martin, formerly of USAID, is trying to build bridges between church organizations in the West and various governments on the issue. “Churches have powerful tools that really can do something about the problem. Early on in the epidemic, a lot of churches were interested, but didn’t want to get involved in pushing condoms.
USAID said if you won’t distribute condoms, we can’t give you money. Well, ideally I’d like the churches to include condoms too, but if their theology or morality won’t permit that, for God’s sake let them do what they’re willing and able to do.”
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