God and the Fight Against AIDS

How faith-based AIDS work is changing the fight in Uganda

| April 14, 2005

While Catholic and Protestant churches have long been on the front lines in the battle against AIDS, conservative Evangelicals -- many of whom believe the disease is divine punishment for homosexuality and promiscuity -- have traditionally stayed on the sidelines.

Since President Bush was elected -- on promises to provide more funds to faith-based groups -- many conservative Christians have begun to 'change their tune,' writes Helen Epstein in The New York Review of Books. It helps that of the $15 billion Bush has allocated to fight AIDS globally, much will be directed to church-affiliated organizations, with $1 billion earmarked for abstinence-until-marriage programs.

As a result, blind faith in abstinence has taken hold in Uganda, a country that was once the shining star of AIDS success stories in Africa. HIV rates fell in Uganda during the 1990s from about 15 percent to some 6 percent. The key was a multifaceted set of programs known as the ABC approach, which preached the benefits of Abstinence, Being faithful, and using Condoms.

But Uganda is now 'in the throes of a born-again Christian revival,' Epstein writes. The government has embraced the abstinence tack and groups are scrambling to secure a piece of the $1 billion pie.

That's meant pushing aside condom programs, a trend worrisome to those who believe prophylactics were a pivotal part of Uganda's success, and an abandonment of the 'Be Faithful' approach, which is rooted in Uganda's homegrown 'Zero Grazing' campaign.

Zero Grazing urged Ugandan men, who often have extra wives or mistresses, not to stray. If they did, the policy cautioned, they should at least avoid short-term encounters with prostitutes or bar girls. 'The genius of the Zero Grazing campaign,' Epstein writes, 'was that it recognized both the universal power of sexuality and the specific sexual culture of this part of Africa, and it gave people advice they could realistically follow.'
-- Hannah Lobel