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Actors, Musicians Urge New Approach on AIDS

Haider Rizvi

NEW YORK - Some of the nation's leading performing artists are calling for the U.S. Congress to roll back the Bush administration's policy on global HIV/AIDS funds requiring abstinence from sex until marriage.1025 04

"Already 20 million members of our human family have died of AIDS," the artists said in a recent letter to members of Congress, urging them to amend Bush's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

PEPFAR currently restricts one third of U.S. global HIV prevention funds to abstinence-until-marriage programs that critics say have proven ineffective and have caused serious risks to women's health.

As many as 39 celebrities signed the letter written by Artists for a New South Africa, a group collaborating with the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE), an independent public health advocacy organization based in Washington, DC.

Among others, those who signed the letter include actors Chris Rock, Alfre Woodard, Gillian Anderson, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Dule Hill, Mary Steenburgen, Ted Danson, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Noah Gray-Cabey, Alexandra Paul, and musicians Jackson Brown and Bonnie Raitt.

Currently, there are two bills awaiting congressional approval to reverse the Bush administration's abstinence-related funding policy. If passed, the proposed Protection Against Transmission of HIV for Women and Youth (PATHWAY) Act in the House and the Senate's HIV Prevention Act would change the way the funding is delivered.

While there is no indication that the Bush administration would be willing to lift the current restrictions on funding, observers say the White House may find it hard to maintain the status quo.

With increasing pressure from women's groups, religious organizations, and health advocacy groups, Democratic lawmakers seem ready to challenge the notion that telling young people to abstain from sex until marriage is the best way to combat AIDS at home and abroad.

"There is no reason why someone should be more vulnerable to AIDS because she is a woman, but the fact remains that women and girls in developing countries are bearing the brunt of the global HIV/AIDS epidemic," said Congresswoman Barbara Lee who introduced the PATHWAY Act.

If passed, the proposed PATHWAY Act would also require effective strategies to deal with the issue of violence against women and lack of sexual education.

"This abstinence-only policy isn't working. It doesn't make sense for us," Lee said in past statements.

It is believed that congressional support for the bill has grown over the past few months, with strong backing from some 70 non-governmental AIDS organizations, including a number of religious groups.

The Bush administration has consistently held that abstaining from sex until marriage is the best source of protection against AIDS. But researchers say that is an unrealistic goal in many of the most heavily impacted societies where faithfulness is rarely assured and women have little power in sexual situations -- both inside and outside of marriages.

Researchers say the epidemic is now affecting more women than men by a large margin.

Studies have also pointed out that women with HIV/AIDS suffer disproportionately from additional hardships, such as loss of income and property.

Last year, the United Nations reported that an estimated 39.5 million people in the world are living with HIV, which included 4.3 million newly infected.

More than half of these new infections in 2006 -- 2.8 million -- occurred in sub-Saharan Africa, while significant increases were also reported in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Researchers said at the time that they found the highest rates of infection among those between the ages of 15 and 24, and married women in their 20s and 30s.

The epidemic killed nearly 3 million people last year.

Washington's current policy requires that 33 percent of all prevention funding be earmarked for abstinence and fidelity programs, both at home and abroad. Condoms may be recommended for high-risk groups, but not for sexually active people in general.

Both researchers and activists believe that the U.S. policy is partially responsible for the overall increase in the rate of HIV infection because in many areas prevention programs are not reaching out to those at risk.

"It is critical to demand justice for those who are harmed by U.S. policies, including funding restrictions like the abstinence-until-marriage earmark," said Serra Sippel, acting executive director of CHANGE.

According to UNAIDS, prevention efforts are reaching fewer than 20 percent of people in dire need.

Sippel praised the celebrities who signed the letter to the Congress. "We applaud these artists for standing in solidarity and calling on the government to put aside ideology and ensure the U.S.-funded HIV/AIDS prevention programs are comprehensive."

© 2007 One World

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