HIV/AIDS and Human Rights

What You Need to Know

Stop the Export of U.S.-Funded Abstinence-Only HIV/AIDS Programs

What are abstinence-only HIV/AIDS programs?
Abstinence-only programs (also known as abstinence-until-marriage programs) teach young people that abstaining from sex until marriage is the only way to prevent sexual transmission of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). These programs withhold or distort information about any other HIV-prevention strategy besides abstinence, including safer sex and the use of condoms. They ignore the risk of HIV transmission within marital relationships and fail to provide information so that couples can protect themselves.

Where are abstinence-only programs being sent?
Abstinence-only programs are the main youth HIV-prevention strategy under U.S. President George W. Bush’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). While these programs could be sent to any country where the U.S. funds HIV-prevention, to date the U.S. has recommended sixteen “focus countries” to which most PEPFAR money will go. These are Botswana, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Guyana, Haiti, India, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Vietnam, and Zambia.

How much is the U.S. spending on these programs?
The legislation authorizing PEPFAR, the United States AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria Act (2003), requires that at least 33 percent of all spending on HIV-prevention go to “abstinence-until-marriage” programs. The act authorizes the expenditure of U.S. $15 billion over five years, of which 20 percent (U.S. $3 billion) can be spent on prevention. If one-third of this prevention budget goes to abstinence-until-marriage programs, that would equal U.S. $1 billion spent on these programs over five years.

What is wrong with abstinence-only programs?
Abstaining from sex until marriage is one of many healthy choices young people can make. But abstinence-only programs withhold or distort information about any method of HIV prevention other than abstinence, and even discourage young people from using condoms by exaggerating their (very low) failure rates or saying that they don’t work at all. These programs have been proven less effective at lowering young people’s HIV risk than programs that combine abstinence messages with information about condoms and safer sex. They also discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth, who cannot legally marry in most countries, by teaching that there is no safe way for them to have sex.

Doesn’t the U.S. support an ‘ABC’ approach to HIV prevention?
The U.S. often describes its global HIV-prevention strategy with the acronym ‘ABC,’ which stands for Abstain until marriage, Be faithful, and use Condoms. In fact, the five-year strategy for PEPFAR breaks this down into Abstinence for unmarried young people, Being faithful for married people, and Condoms for “high risk” persons such as sex workers and people living with AIDS. Thus, for unmarried young people the U.S. strategy is abstinence-only, not ABC. In a recent investigation in Uganda, Human Rights Watch found that young people were being denied information about condoms and safer sex because of the increasing U.S. focus on “abstinence-only.”

What can I do to stop the export of abstinence-only programs?
Young people around the world have a human right to know about all effective methods of HIV-prevention, not just abstinence. Here's what you can do.

Join Human Rights Watch: Help us pressure the United States and other governments to stop funding abstinence-only programs and to replace them with programs that provide kids with complete HIV/AIDS information. Join us today.

U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Ambassador Randall Tobias and Ugandan Primary Education Minister Geraldine Bitamazire discuss HIV/AIDS with Ugandan students, Dec. 5, 2003 (Photograph: Reuters).
U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Ambassador Randall Tobias and Ugandan Primary Education Minister Geraldine Bitamazire discuss HIV/AIDS with Ugandan students, Dec. 5, 2003 (Photograph: Reuters).

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Facts at a Glance

Full Report: The Less They Know, the Better—Abstinence-Only HIV/AIDS Programs in Uganda

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Human Rights Watch Researcher Tony Tate on U.S.-Funded, Abstinence-Only HIV/AIDS Programs in Uganda
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