January 21, 2009 / Uncategorized

Misogyny Kills: Rick Warren, Mark Dybul, and AIDS (Part One)


Editor’s note: This is Part One of a three-part series on the links between the religious right, President Obama’s “AIDS czar” Mark Dybul, and the faith-based programs that are killing women and girls around the world. Part Two will be published tomorrow, with Part Three concluding the series on Friday.

Earlier this month, many of Barack Obama’s most stalwart supporters were shocked to learn that he had asked Rick Warren, the entrepreneur behind the “The Purpose-Driven Life” products and founder of Saddleback Ministries, to give the Inaugural Invocation. Warren, we now know, has devoted considerable time and resources towards pushing an anti-gay, male supremacist agenda.

President Obama's "AIDS czar" Mark Dybul

President Obama's AIDS czar Mark Dybul

A few days ago, it became known that Mr. Obama will “indefinitely” extend the tenure of Dr. Mark Dybul, George W. Bush’s Global AIDS Coordinator (a position known informally as the “AIDS czar.”) Since his appointment in 2006, Dybul has been a cheerleader for one of Bush’s most pernicious policies: steering taxpayer dollars toward faith-based organizations that promote conservative Christian activism and “abstinence-until-marriage” AIDS education that victimizes countless young women in the developing world. The decision to keep Dybul has already angered HIV prevention and women’s rights advocates, but there is at least one person to whom this news was manna from heaven.

That person is Rick Warren.

Pre-election, Warren gave candidate Obama a congenial platform and entrée to reach out to evangelical voters. Post election, Obama has given Warren a coveted mainstream platform, and by deciding to keep Mark Dybul, he’s ensured Warren will continue to influence the deployment of funds to fight AIDS in the developing world.

What can women around the world expect when Pastor Rick, who tells women God wants them to be submissive wives, teams up with AIDS czar Dybul, who has gone to bat for faith based organizations that mislead young women about the risk of contracting AIDS from their husbands?

The Fidelity Fallacy

As AIDS czar, Dybul is in charge of the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief, known as PEPFAR. PEPFAR supports desperately needed treatment for millions of the world’s most vulnerable people with AIDS, for which it is rightly lauded. But PEPFAR has also misspent millions of dollars on a raft of prevention programs that are based on conservative religious ideology rather than scientific fact. In many of the countries hardest hit by the AIDS pandemic, PEPFAR’s notorious abstinence-until-marriage strategy increases the risk that a young woman will contract HIV.

Uganda: 80-year-old Lozaj Nabitutilett looks after her six orphaned grandchildren. Her five daughters all died of AIDS.

Rakai, UGANDA: 80 year old Lozaj Nabitutilett looks after her six orphaned grandchildren. Her five daughters all died of AIDS. © Rob Cousins/Panos Pictures (2004)

Abstinence-until-marriage programs focus on two goals: encouraging individuals to abstain from sex until marriage, and encouraging married couples to be faithful (these steps represent the “A” and “B” in PEPFAR’s “ABC” prevention strategy). Participants in there programs are told that abstinence and fidelity are the only 100% effective ways to prevent HIV infection. The “C” in ABC stands for condoms, which are recommended for high-risk populations (men who have sex with men, sex workers, and those already infected). PEPFAR directs grant recipients to spread the message that condoms are frequently ineffective.

Yet as Serra Sippel explains in her 2007 article, “The Fidelity Fallacy,” “for most women around the world, marital sex represents their greatest risk for HIV infection.” Abstinence-until-marriage programs “may be helping to fuel the spread of AIDS because the approach stigmatizes those who use condoms or those who ask their marriage partners to use condoms… abstaining or being faithful in marriage are presented as the most moral choices, with condoms as a last resort—only to be used if you are sexually immoral because you failed to choose ‘A’ or ‘B’ or are part of an ‘at-risk’ population. As a result, women are discouraged from asking their husbands to use condoms, because asking them to do so is tantamount to accusing them of infidelity and implicates them as being immoral.”

A 2003 report by Human Rights Watch, “Just Die Quietly: Domestic Violence and Women’s Vulnerability to HIV in Uganda,” explains:

“The suggestion that marriage provides a safeguard against HIV may amount to a death sentence for women and girls. Ugandan women face a high risk of HIV in marriage as a result of polygyny and infidelity among their husbands, combined with human rights abuses such as domestic violence, marital rape, and wife inheritance (whereby a widow is forced to marry the brother of her late husband)…

“Research by Human Rights Watch and others has shown that many Ugandan women who abstain until marriage and remain faithful to their husbands nevertheless face a very high risk of HIV because of their husbands’ infidelity or prior HIV infection. Although abuses against married women may put them at equal risk of HIV as their unmarried counterparts, abstinence educators nevertheless champion the institution of marriage while at the same time withholding information about its risks.

“Abstinence-only programs also fail to recognize that, as in all countries, AIDS in Uganda is a disease of poverty. Many Ugandans live on less than US$1 per day, a situation that has been exacerbated by decades of political violence and civil war. New HIV cases occur among girls trading sex for school fees, women enduring violent marriages because they lack economic independence, and orphans being pushed onto the street and sexually exploited. ‘I wish those who preach abstinence would come down to the slums and see how people are living,’ said one AIDS educator. ‘These girls live five to a room. There is no supper for them. The man outside says he will get her money and a place to sleep. Now, what is she going to do, abstain?’”

Dr. Sheila Ndyanabangi of the Ugandan Ministry of Health, quoted in the same report, explains: “There is a high incidence of infection amongst faithful wives of errant husbands. The woman most at risk is a woman in a monogamous marriage.” According to Dr. Ndyanabangi, many Ugandan women are not only powerless to resist their husbands’ sexual demands; they are also unable to compel their husbands to stop sleeping with multiple partners and/or to use condoms. For some women, the Human Rights Watch authors conclude, “rape and battery had literally become part of the fabric of their daily lives.”

The report also quotes Dr. Seggane Musisi, head of psychiatric consultation at Uganda’s Mulago Hospital, who sums up the big picture:

“The control of sexual relations is with men. The determination of marriage rests with the father and brothers. Relations in the family are under the husband. Who the women sleep with is all under the control of men. If things go right, the credit goes to men. If things go wrong, the blame goes to women. Therefore responsibility for STDs and HIV is put on women…The prevention of AIDS always focuses on how to control women’s sexuality. As is always the case. So when they talk about virginity, they are talking about women…Women have no cultural or legal power to control safe sex.”

To be continued in Part Two.

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  • Anna

    Thank you for this most informative piece. I hope the text from the entire series will be distilled down to a press release. This is a very important issues.

    From what little I know on the subject, another huge challenge is education. There is still a huge challenge in many African nations for people to accept how HIV is spread, which further discourages use of condoms. Tackling the issue of global HIV/AIDS is enormous and the continuation of Bush’s policies is dangerous. As many of us are aware, there are entire communities in sub-Sahara Africa where the adult population has been wiped out and children are left raising children.

    I hope TNA will get a press release out asap.

  • This piece is sobering but profound in its comprehension and clarity of the forces at work here, and the dynamics behind this disturbing issue and the powers in the shadows behind it. Many, many kudos to you for digging deep and unearthing the true dynamics, shedding light where it has not shone before and sharing these facts with us.

    I’m hoping you will put out a press release on this and distribute it far and wide where it can not be ignored.

  • NMK

    The spider web of people involved in this issue and the sheer complexity are very disturbing, and I look forward to the next in the series. Thanks for all the work.

    Press release, please?

  • Karen

    I do not see the “abstenice only” program as inheriently sexist or misogynistic. I believe the ideas behind it are solid. However, it is idealistic and not grounded in reality; I do see the program applied naively in currently-misogynistic cultures that interpret the program in ways that further the misogynism. This well-intended “absentince only” education is causing a lot more harm than good. The problem with aids in Africa is that men are expected to be promiscuous while women are expected to be devout to their husbands. “Abstinence only” programs cannot change the culture that drives this behavior.

  • ER

    We know Rick Warren’s alleged AIDS work in Africa has harmed rather than helped: http://www.thedailybeast.com/b.....-in-africa

    I agree. This is about cultural competency and common sense. AIDS prevention programs need to be relevant to the culture in which they are developed, or they will not be successful.

    I think we need a press release that includes the following:

    1. Share the facts and educate the public.
    2. Urge Obama to appoint a NEW “AIDS czar.” Who are the women experts who would be good AIDS czars? Let’s include those in the press release.

  • Anna

    No reason to hold back contacting Obama himself. Now that it’s official, we should all feel free to bombard him via phone, fax, e-mail, snail mail regarding any and all issues of concern. For those issues that dovetail with Congressional responsibilities, make sure to contact your elected officials, as well….Just heard a snippet on NPR today with Obama talking about how he probably will keep his blackberry because he doesn’t want to get caught up in only hearing from the inner circle in DC, but from those across the county, specifically nothing wanting to be informed if he’s “doing something stupid.” So, let’s start informing!!!!!!!!!!! (Including the issue of who he names as Commerce Secretary).

  • Anna

    Piggy-backing on ER’s suggesions and all of our cries for a press release, wondering if anyone at TNA has any contacts with folks who are known spokespeople in the HIV/AIDS community could we could join forces with to bolster our case.

  • Anna

    “noting” not “nothing” in 7:57 post, second to last line.

  • Sis

    Check out the work of the Stephen Lewis Foundation:

  • Anna

    Sis – Just took a quick look around the link you posted. That org looks very impressive. Got it book marked and will spend more time over the coming days checking it out. Thanks for posting that.

  • Sis

    He was until recently the UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. He has written two books about his impressions of WHY. (Following).

    A bit from an interview. I just thought, to look at his website, maybe get an idea where to go with your efforts. On his website see “What we do” where he talks about women, and grandmothers. He also recently spoke out strongly against the people (I didn’t get the names) who are thwarting the distribution of condoms. He said they are responsible for thousands of deaths.I was only half listening. Was he talking about Rick Warren? I didn’t hear it all.


    You know, it’s like a – it’s like an indictment of the continent, and I don’t know how else to deal with it. The absence of autonomy, the absence of equality, the absence of rights in every single field. It’s not just sexual violence, it’s not just poverty. It’s not just the absence of property rights or inheritance rights.

    It’s also no economic empowerment, no political representation to speak of, except in a little country like Rwanda. But almost everywhere on the continent, the women are so depreciated in terms of their persona, their status, their beings.

    And of course, when you have no gender equality in sexual terms is where it’s felt in the presence of the virus because then gender inequality is death for women. And it’s so painful, it is actually the one part of the last 5 1/2 years which is almost inexplicable to me because it’s the one part where we haven’t made progress.

    We’ve made some progress on treatment and some modest progress on resources and some progress for children and, and maybe even for orphans, although it’s not immediately evident, but you sense it’s coming.

    But around women, it is as though time stands still. You just can’t wrench the continent out of the predatory male sense of sexual entitlement and the tremendously grotesque vulnerability of the women, so disproportionate, so many more women infected than men are infected, and dying in such great numbers.

    It’s not just heartbreaking, it’s almost beyond the capacity of the mind to absorb, and certainly visually it’s overwhelming. And I don’t understand what it will take, in a way. I don’t understand how you break through the gender inequality

    This is a funny aside, but it’s so interesting. The head of the World Food Program, James Morris, who comes from Indianapolis, is a dyed-in-the-wool Republican. And he has on his website now, from a speech he recently made, that he left the United States a moderate Republican and he returns a radical feminist.

    And as odd as that may seem, it captures it perfectly because you can’t be in Africa and see what’s happening to women without being wrenched to your very viscera, and so angry about the craziness of it all and the inability to treat the women, to test the women, to give women rights, to let them have the economic and social empowerment to govern their own lives.

    And the indifference of the international community is startling. The absolute contempt of African governments is just, just unconscionable. It’s going to be a long, hard struggle. My god, it’s going to be a long, hard struggle.

  • Anna

    Sis – Your post is deeply moving. Add to some of what you’ve shared how rape is being used as a central weapon in the “conflict” in the Congo….As you’ve written, it’s hard to wrap one’s brain around the depth and breadth of it all.

  • Nina M.

    Sis – it is awful, awful, awful. But I can tell you there are a lot – A LOT – of African feminists working on this, so there is that bright spot. These women are so strong, its just incredible, and they are so straightforward in their feminism – no hedging, no kinda-sorta about it. And some of them have risen to the very top – the president of Liberia for example, Ellen Sirleaf. Read her profile and feel some inspiration….


    Gender equality is written into the South African constitution, and 45 African nations have signed on to the Maputo Protocol, which guarantees women a wide range of human rights. Things are moving slowly…. but at least there is growing consensus about the goal.


    There are some great organizations working on helping African women secure their rights, starting with the UN (UNFPA, UNIFEM) and WHO, and also some you wouldn’t expect, like the World Bank. My personal favorites are the International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC) and UNFPA.

    There is a strange silence about feminism in America. It seems like it has become taboo to talk about gender inequality and the status of women. In other countries this is not the case. Here, its just – silence.

  • KendallJ

    Wow! This article is so soberinglyclear. Women are so abused on this planet that their most basic bodily functions are completely in the hands of men. If that’s not slavery, nothing is!

    I hope Hillary Clinton can move the world community to focus on this problem. We need to shame those who treat women like animals. We shamed the world community to denounce apartheid in South Africa. Why can’t we do the same on the slavery and egregious human rights violations done to women across the planet?

  • Sis

    The text after HOW DO WOMEN LIVE IN AFRICA? WHAT DO THEY LACK? is an out take from a television interview with Stephen Lewis. former UN Special Envoy to Africa for HIV/AIDS. He was, a few years prior to his UN appointment, the leader of our New Democrat Party, a “socialist” party. (My political party and I’ve never had to vote for a man yet).

    He is really the go-to person on AIDS in Africa. He gets it. He calls it misogyny.

    Did you see the quote in Lewis’ interview from a Republican–who says he went to Africa a Republican (to see Lewis’ work) and returned a radical feminist. .

    “I have spent the last four years watching people die”

  • brian

    My name is Brian and i live in Uganda, 27 yrs old and have grown up in the average life of a Ugandan person.
    Its so sad seeing people growing up in a miserable life in Uganda.
    AIDS Control in Uganda is complicated becoz of extreme poverty. people work so hard here but the country system is dead.
    Recently in April , a health person from a big health organization was complaing live on TV that the Condoms brought to Uganda are not genuine yet the government allows them.
    He mentioned that Condoms for sale even in government hospitals have expiry of 5 yrs yet condoms should not have that long expiry dates and they have no manual leaflet/ directions inside them.
    Its complicated in Uganda.