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.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.
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.