NEW YORK - Calls for substantial change in White House policies toward HIV are on the rise as Congress gets ready to consider the Bush administration's new financial proposal to fight the epidemic at home and abroad."Congress [should] take critical steps to make sure U.S. global HIV prevention policies reflect the realities of women's lives," said Serra Sippel, executive director of the Washington, DC-based Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE).
Researchers at CHANGE have long charged that current U.S. HIV prevention policy not only fails to achieve its objectives, but also poses serious risks to women's lives in poor countries.
Their criticism of the Bush administration's funding policy is largely focused on the fact that it imposes strict and unrealistic restrictions on aid distribution in parts of the world where abstinence is not practiced.
Public health activists and women's groups see these restrictions as unrealistic because in many countries women have no power in sexual situations at all -- either inside or outside of marriage.
Describing Bush's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) as ideologically driven, Sipple said it "falsely assumes that all women and youth are able to choose when they have sex" and that they have access to and are able to demand condom use.
In fact, many women and girls are infected by HIV after being raped.
Health and gender activists are not alone in calling for a reversal in the current funding policy. Some faith-based organizations are making similar demands.
"These restrictive measures reflect the agenda of an extreme minority that is committed to making [U.S.] policy conform to a view of human sexuality that is based on ideology and not science," said Phyllis Snyder, president of the National Council of Jewish Women.
"'Just say no' didn't work in the Garden of Eden, and it's not working today," added Bill Skinford of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. "Abstinence-only programs don't work because they don't tell the whole truth."
Last year, the United Nations reported that an estimated 39.5 million people in the world are living with HIV. Researchers at the Center 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.
Like married women, young people are at particularly high risk of HIV infection. Nearly half of all new HIV infections are among people aged 15-24.
"With the increasing rates of HIV among young people, it is clear that prevention programs need to take a more comprehensive approach," explained Krystal Corpuz of the International Youth Leadership Council.
In Corpuz's view, "Sexual and reproductive health issues must be combined with any HIV prevention program if that program is to be effective with young people."
While there is no indication that the Bush administration would be willing to lift 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 public health activists, 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.
"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 in a statement issued on World AIDS Day, Dec. 1.
Lee, who introduced the Protection Against Transmission of HIV for Women and Youth (PATHWAY) Act in the House, fully shares the activists' views:
"This abstinence policy isn't working. It doesn't make sense for us," she said.
If passed, the proposed Pathway act would also require effective strategies to deal with the issue of violence against women and lack of sex education for young people.
For his part, last week Bush urged Congress to authorize the doubling of financial aid to combat HIV to $30 billion over the next five years, but did not indicate whether he would be willing to remove restrictions related to abstinence.
Current U.S. policy requires that 33 percent of all funding for prevention programs be earmarked for those promoting abstinence and fidelity, both at home and abroad. Condoms can be recommended for high-risk groups, but not for sexually active people in general.
According to UNAIDS, prevention efforts are reaching fewer than 20 percent of people in dire need.
In October some of the nation's leading performing artists joined activities in urging Congress to roll back the
administration's policy on AIDS funding. "Already 20 million members of our human family have died of AIDS," the artists said in a letter to members of Congress, calling upon them to amend the current funding policy.
Among those who signed the letter were actors Chris Rock, Alfre Woodard, Gillian Anderson, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Dule Hill, Mary Steenburgen, Ted Danson, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Noah Gray-Cabey,and Alexandra Paul, along with musicians Jackson Brown and Bonnie Raitt.
© 2007 One World