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Last Updated

15 Jul 2004

Source: Wall Street Journal, July 14, 2004.


Museveni's ABCs

"Abstain from sex or delay having sex if you are young and not married, Be faithful to your sexual partner (zero-grazing), after testing, or use a Condom properly and consistently if you are going to move around. This has now been globally popularized as the ABC strategy".

--- Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, in an address Monday to the International AIDS Conference in Bangkok.

You would think that the common-sense message above would be embraced by all reasonable people, especially those whose avowed interest it is to staunch the spread of HIV/AIDS. But these words, and many others like it, have landed Mr. Museveni in a controversy with the hyper-politicized activists who attend these conferences.

This, you see, is because merely to suggest a solution to HIV infection that does not put condoms as the first and only line of defense is to do several bad things. One is to put oneself on the same side as the abstinence-counseling Vatican and U.S. President George W. Bush, rated as bad guys by audiences such as this. The good guys, the United Nations, the World Health Organization and the various NGOs, all support condoms.

To advise self-control even as part of the solution is, moreover, to imply that individual decisions about sex and drug use are partly responsible for the spread of HIV/AIDS, and this is a connection that activists have resisted from the start of this plague. Sometimes it seems that their interest is not solely or even primarily in stopping AIDS. Rather, it seems to be in gaining social acceptance for promiscuity, which is why condom use must now be taught in schools.

The activists' hijacking of these conferences, unfortunately, has made them at best expensive talkfests, at worst an impediment to finding real solutions. At the U.N.-sponsored conference in Bangkok this week, proponents of condoms have vastly outnumbered those who dare support abstinence, just as those who demonize pharmaceutical companies for patenting drugs that combat HIV have overwhelmed those with the temerity to suggest that only the profit motive guarantees a cure one day.

In Mr. Museveni, however, the activists have met a formidable foe who has become a gadfly on this issue. They are confounded by the fact that, unlike the mostly Western, middle-class activists, Mr. Museveni is actually an African leader successfully battling the disease. He will go any place that will have him and repeat his home truths.

The first truth is that condoms have a failure rate, however minimal. Even the pro-condom WHO only claims that "consistent and correct" condom use only reduces infection by 90%. The second is that condoms institutionalize promiscuity, the behavior that is at the heart of the sexually transmitted epidemic.

So while the activists insist on condoms for furtive but supposedly non-infectious sexual trysts, the Ugandan speaks of love and commitment. And as is often the case, form accompanies substance. While the activists alternate between angry and infantile behavior, chanting and waving blood-stained signs, or dressing up like giant condoms, the African simply spreads his message with words of reason, statistics and dignity.

The best way to fight AIDS, he told an audience that grew more stunned by the minute, was with "relationships based on love and trust, instead of institutionalized mistrust, which is what the condom is all about." Condoms, he said, "are not the ultimate solution to this problem." A condom-focused campaign, he added for good measure, would only prevent societies from doing something about the root causes of the disease. "AIDS is mainly a moral, social and economic problem," he said. To rub salt in the wound, he praised President Bush for committing billions to fight AIDS in Africa.

The activists were not amused by this message. "It seems slightly drawn by ideology rather than an assessment of needs on the ground," observed Mabel van Oranje, a director for financier George Soros's Open Society Institute in Holland. Leading the charge against the Bush administration was the Democratic Party's congresswoman Barbara Lee, who said that "an abstinence-until-marriage program is not only irresponsible, it's really inhumane."

Both women argued that Mr. Museveni's approach could not be tried in Africa because women's first sexual experience is "involuntary." This is one of those arguments that at first sounds plausibly substantive, until it dawns on you that not many rapists really do bother to use condoms.

For his part Tim Brown of the East West Center in Hawaii told the Associated Press, "I disagree with (Mr. Museveni). Condoms are greatly shortchanged in Africa as a prevention method." Mr. Brown made the following claim: "If you increase condom use by 50%, I guarantee you that HIV will go down by 50%."

It's easy to "guarantee" these things, of course. Less easy is what Mr. Museveni has done with Uganda. While the rest of sub-Saharan Africa is ever more mired in AIDS, his country has gone from a 30% infection rate in the early 1990s to 6% today, a success rate the president attributes to abstinence.

Today we reprint many of the Ugandan leader's words in Bangkok. We suggest that his message of personal responsibility, as well as the results he has obtained, be measured against the hyperventilating claims made by his critics.