Editor’s note: This is Part Three 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. Parts One and Two were published earlier this week.
The New Partners Initiative
When Mark Dybul took over from Randall Tobias at PEPFAR, he continued the agency’s support for religion-based programs, despite his duty to promote the most effective, science-based strategies for the prevention of HIV infection. According to Jodi Jacobson, Dybul has close ties to Rick Warren and the religious right, and has used his position to further their agenda:
“Under Dybul’s tenure, tens of millions of dollars have been given to ideologically-driven faith-based organizations under the controversial New Partners Initiative. And after [the reauthorization of PEPFAR] in 2008, Dybul acted quickly to mollify religious conservatives by writing program guidance not required by law which forbids purchase of contraceptive commodities using PEPFAR funds. This step greatly undermines integration of HIV prevention with reproductive health programs, limiting efforts to slow the rapid spread of new infections among women in sub-Saharan Africa and denying HIV-positive women in prevention of maternal-to-child transmission programs support they need to space or limit births. The guidance flouts recommendations by global bodies such as the World Health Organization, and by OGAC itself, that integration of programs is an urgent priority.”
In 2007, when The Lancet asked Dybul about criticism of the abstinence-until-marriage strategy, he responded, “My reaction is amusement and occasional frustration.” He added, “Facts need to have some relevance in this debate. Criticism is fine but disinformation is harmful to the overall fight” (Lancet 369:1161).
These responses were consistent with comments Dybul made months earlier before the House Committee on Government Reform subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations. Dybul defended PEPFAR’s abstinence-until-marriage focus, claiming it might be “the best way to encourage men to treat women better.”
Neither Dybul nor Warren shows concern that framing condoms as a tool of last resort for high-risk, “immoral” or sick individuals harms young women. When a reporter for the ultra-conservative news service WorldNet Daily asked him whether he approves of condoms, Warren told the reporter he supports condom distribution for prostitutes.
“I want to keep them alive long enough that I can win them to Christ,” Warren said.
Defenders of Barack Obama, including a handful of women’s rights leaders who have presumptively granted him the title “feminist,” argue that Dybul is a functionary who will follow the lead of his new boss. Clearly Obama is a supporter of increased funding for HIV/AIDS services, and he has stated he opposes abstinence-only sex education. But where does he stand on the integration of a gender-sensitive, women’s empowerment approach in our global AIDS strategy in order to address the feminization of AIDS?
The Obama-Biden plan to combat global HIV/AIDS presented on the Change.gov website does not acknowledge that the AIDS pandemic disproportionately affects women and girls. The closest it comes is a promise to expand existing PEPFAR programs to prevent violence against women and girls. How effective will our AIDS strategy be with a AIDS czar who minimizes the danger in which the abstinence-until-marriage approach places women? How effective will our PEPFAR strategies be if Warren’s anti-woman friends still enjoy a steady stream of taxpayer support?
Women’s rights advocates must demand the Obama administration focus on gender issues here and abroad. As Marcy Bloom writes, “misogyny kills”:
“What we are really addressing in HIV-AIDS is the need to end misogyny—ending sexist attitudes and behaviors against women that violate their very beings.
“What is a woman worth in this world? What are 14 million women worth? They are worth absolutely everything to themselves, their families, their communities, their countries—and their world. We desperately need their vitality, contributions, insights, and power. Let us begin with the personal and political empowerment of the women of Africa and let our African sisters know that they are not alone in their struggle for respect, dignity and life.”
UPDATE: Thank You, Hillary !!!
Dybul is out! Jodi Jacobson of the website RH Reality Check reports:
Sworn in as Secretary of State just yesterday, Hillary Clinton wasted no time cleaning house at the vast department she runs. Today, we have heard, Mark Dybul was asked to submit his resignation as US Global AIDS Coordinator, head of the office in charge of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.
This is a huge first step to ensuring the health and rights of all people at risk of HIV and AIDS: Dybul oversaw the last several years of abstinence-only programs funded by PEPFAR, hob-knobbed a bit too closely with the far right, and never saw a law or policy restriction he could not make even more restrictive. Curious for a self-identified Democrat? Not so curious, I guess, if your career is dependent on pleasing the far right, and if your desire to be Global AIDS Coordinator outweighs your desire to stand up for what is right.
Under the Bush Administration, brave professionals such as Susan Wood, then-Assistant FDA Commissioner and Director of the Office of Women’s Health, resigned rather than carry out policies that compromised science, evidence, ethics and human lives.
Dybul instead did everything he could to work with the far right to tighten policies, deny women access to reproductive and sexual health care, and put in place guidance that further restricted women’s choices. I have no doubt that as a result people in countries like Uganda were needlessly infected with HIV under his regime and because of the policies he supported through his unwillingness to stand up and speak out.
But we no longer have to abide such policies. Hillary Clinton has taken swift action to show she will stand up for the health and rights of people everywhere, for evidence-based policies to promote women’s health.
It is wonderful to be able to share this good news! Service providers around the world are breathing a sigh of relief. This is the difference a real feminist leader, backed by women and men of good conscience, can make.