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Uganda Takes Up Abstinence Campaign

Activists say the nation's shift away from encouraging condom use threatens one of the world's most successful anti-AIDS programs.

October 31, 2005|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

KAMPALA, Uganda — It's Saturday night at Makerere University and the "abstinence party" is in full swing around the campus swimming pool.

More than a thousand young men and women sway to the reggae sounds of local musicians and singers. Some dance. A few flirt. But the sexual tension ends there. At night's end, hundreds sign pledge cards vowing to shun sex until marriage.

"We're waiting," says Sylvia Moos Muzaale, 25, a smiling library sciences major seated next to her boyfriend of three years. He gives a shrug that suggests he's less comfortable with the decision, but says nothing.

The weekly bash is part of a burgeoning anti-AIDS campaign in this East African nation, where virginity is fast becoming a national obsession.

Billboards with the logo "Abstinence: You Can!" dot the capital's streets, encouraging men to search for virgins. "Somewhere out there," one giant poster reads, "she's keeping herself for you." A member of Parliament is offering scholarships for young women who undergo gynecological exams to prove their chastity.

Now AIDS activists are warning that the focus on abstinence, and a related backlash against condoms, is threatening Uganda's progress in combating AIDS. Prevalence rates here dropped from 18% in 1992 to 7% today in a country where 1 million have died from the disease and another 1 million are infected.

"Abstinence is fine for some, but not for everyone," said Edith Mukisa, who heads Kampala's Naguru Teenage Center. "What about people that don't marry? What about poverty, which forces many young people to take sugar daddies or sugar mommies for money? I'm afraid we're going to have another boom in the HIV rate."

Uganda's AIDS prevention campaign, launched in the late 1980s and considered one of the world's most successful, has fractured over its much-touted A-B-C strategy, which focuses on abstinence, being faithful and condoms.

Complaining that the A-B message was getting short shrift, religious groups and some politicians, with support from churches and conservative groups in the United States, declared war on the C camp.

"People act as if condoms are more important than food," said Pastor Martin Ssempa, host of the campus abstinence parties and founder of Makerere Community Church, which preaches chastity to students. The pastor says he believes condoms encourage promiscuity and that condom promotion has gone too far, such as explicit how-to demonstrations in schools.

"I'm not anti-condom," Ssempa said, although he acknowledged burning a batch on campus last year. "It's a moral issue. I believe in quiet promotion of condoms to certain groups."

Other critics have suggested that condoms cause cancer or have holes that allow the human immunodeficiency virus to permeate the devices. Some have even claimed that condoms were secretly infected with HIV by the U.S. to spread the disease in Africa.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who relied heavily on condom distribution in the past, shocked many by saying recently that condoms are "not the ultimate solution." His evangelical-leaning wife, Janet, who wants a national census to determine how many young people have had sex, suggested that condom promoters are racist because they believe "Africans cannot control their sexual drives."

Their contributions to the debate led to an avalanche of statements by other political leaders who declared condoms "un-African" and only suitable for sex workers, truck drivers and those already infected with HIV.

"Because of the stigmatization, those of us arguing for condoms were suddenly looked at as people who are immoral," said Ugandan AIDS activist Beatrice Were, who is HIV-positive.

Straight Talk, a nonprofit youth group, built its name on providing frank advice about sex and condoms in newsletters, radio shows and classroom presentations. In the new climate, how-to demonstrations were canceled, and counselors don't mention condoms unless asked.

"The conversation about sex is getting constrained," said Catherine Watson, communications director for the group. "We don't raise the 'C' issue."

Many blame the government for a recent condom shortage, sparked when 45 million government-issued condoms were recalled. Users complained of a bad smell, and tests found defects.

Health clinics and AIDS groups scrambled to replace supplies, but condom prices tripled. Over the last 12 months, only 30 million condoms have been distributed nationwide, compared with 100 million in recent years.

Government officials defend their response.

"There is no condom shortage," said State Minister for Health Michael Mukula, adding that a supply of 20 million is being distributed nationwide. He said his ministry continues to promote condoms and is preparing to distribute them to vending machines in hotels, truck stops and public restrooms.

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