Religious Groups Get Chunk of AIDS Money
President Bush's $15 billion effort to fight AIDS has handed out nearly one-quarter of its grants to religious groups, and officials are aggressively pursuing new church partners that often emphasize disease prevention through abstinence and fidelity over condom use.
The abstinence emphasis, say some longtime AIDS volunteers, has led to a confusing message and added to the stigma of condom use in parts of Africa. Village volunteers in Swaziland maintain a supply of free condoms but say they have few takers.
"This drive for abstinence is putting a lot of pressure on girls to get married earlier," said Dr. Abeja Apunyo, the Uganda representative for Pathfinder International, a reproductive health nonprofit group based in Massachusetts.
"For years now we have been trying to tell our daughters that they should finish their education and train in a profession before they get married. Otherwise they have few options if they find themselves separated from their husbands for some reason," Apunyo said.
An AIDS-program pastor in Uganda explained his abstinence teaching to unmarried young people.
"Why give an alternative and have them take a risk?" asked the Rev. Sam Lawrence Ruteikara of the Anglican Church of Uganda, a U.S. grant recipient. "This person doesn't have a sexual partner, so why should I report too much, saying that in case you get a sexual partner, please use a condom. I am saying, please don't get a sexual partner — don't get involved because it is risky."
Secular activists say it is not realistic to expect all teenagers to abstain from sex and that teenagers also should be taught how to protect hemselves.
Smith believes the administration is wrongly supporting some nonprofit groups. He and several other congressional conservatives wrote to Bush and the U.S. Agency for International Development, contending that several large grant recipients were pro-prostitution, pro-abortion or not committed enough to Bush's abstinence priorities.
Six congressional Democrats, in a letter last week to ecretary of State Condoleezza Rice, accused the conservatives of a distortion campaign that undermines a balanced approach to fighting AIDS.
"Their attack is based on a narrow, ideological viewpoint that condemns condoms and frames any attempt to reach out to high-risk populations as an endorsement of behaviors that these critics oppose," said Rep. Henry Waxman (news, bio, voting record), D-Calif.
USAID has declined to renew funding for two major AIDS-fighting consortiums, CORE and IMPACT, headed by organizations the conservatives targeted. Those two groups fund hundreds of community and religious-based organizations.
Associated Press reporters Alexandra Zavis in South Africa, Thulani Mthethwa in Swaziland, Katy Pownall in Uganda, and Lewis Mwanangombe in Zambia contributed to this report.