Haider Rizvi

NEW YORK, Nov 30 2006 (IPS) — While there is no indication that the George W. Bush administration is willing to roll back its current restrictions on funding for HIV/AIDS, it may find it difficult to maintain the status quo when Democrats take charge of the U.S. Congress in January.

With increasing pressure from women groups, religious organisations and health advocacy groups, Democratic lawmakers seem ready to challenge the notion that abstinence from sex until marriage is the best way to combat AIDS at home and abroad.

“We will see a strong effort this year,” said Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee of her plans to introduce new legislation to remove “abstinence only” conditions on HIV/AIDS funding.

If passed, the proposed Protection Against Transmission of HIV for Women and Youth Act (also called the 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 told reporters at a teleconference organised by the Washington-based Centre for Health and Gender Equity Thursday.

So far, as many as 80 members of Congress and more than 70 non-governmental AIDS organisations, including a number of religious groups, are backing the proposed legislation.

“We fully support this act,” said Rev. William Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregation. “Our policies must reflect the realities of peoples’ lives.”

The Bush administration has consistently held that marriage is the best source of protection against AIDS. But aware that the epidemic is affecting more women than men, many church leaders point to the need to address the issues of gender violence and inequality.

“Abstinence is a luxury for those who have a complete control over their bodies and wills,” said Rev. Sinkford. “We know that ‘Just Say No’ didn’t work all that well in the Garden of Eden and it isn’t stopping the spread of HIV today.”

Researchers say the epidemic has multiple effects on women, such as the added responsibility of caring for sick family members, loss of income and property if they become widows, and even violence when their HIV status is discovered.

Last week, the United Nations reported that an estimated 39.5 million people in the world are living with HIV, and 4.3 million were newly infected in 2006. More than half of these new infections – 2.8 million – occurred in sub-Saharan Africa while significant increases were also reported in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

The report 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 has killed nearly three million people this year.

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 programmes are not reaching out to those at risk.

“U.S. policies and funding streams are undermining rather than supporting efforts against new infections in other countries,” said Jodi Jacobson, executive director of the Centre for Health and Gender Equality.

Washington’s current policy requires that 33 percent of all prevention funding be earmarked for abstinence and fidelity programmes, both at home and abroad. Condoms may 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.

On Thursday, Kofi Annan, the outgoing U.N. chief, once again warned government leaders against the consequences of inaction in the fight against HIV/AIDS and asked them to deliver on the promises they made five years ago.

“We cannot risk letting the advances that have been achieved unravel,” he said. “We must not jeopardise the efforts of so many.”

At a summit held in New York in 2001, world leaders pledged to adopt an ambitious agenda known as the Millennium Development Goals that includes reversing the spread of HIV by 2015.

Concerned about the continued increase in the number of HIV cases across the world, Annan said there was a great need to mobilise “political will like never before”.

The question is whether Washington is ready to demonstrate that political will.

Lee, who is the lead author of the Pathway Act, said she was hopeful about the prospects for change. “It’s an uphill battle with the White House,” she said. “But we are going to move it forward and quickly.”


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