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Hooked on failure

"Hooked on failure" Continued...

Issue: "Post-party election blues?," Nov. 6, 2004

At the same time, PSI received U.S. tax dollars to teach abstinence education. With those funds PSI launched Kikosi, a monthly comic-book series about AIDS prevention aimed at 15- to 19-year-olds, targeting 600,000 high-school students on "abstinence, stigma, care, and support." The storyline follows Birungi, a high-school student who contracted HIV/AIDS when her uncle raped her, and who becomes a radio DJ on the Kikosi radio program to increase AIDS awareness. Woven in, however, are multiple use-a-condom reminders, illustrating long-standing skepticism that teenagers can control their sexual urges.

Even in the issue supposedly devoted to abstinence, a main character does some heavy making out with her boyfriend before refusing to have sex. Another character calls into the Kikosi radio program, assuring the hosts that she and her boyfriend have not slept together. But she hopes that when they do "start having sex, he will be faithful to me, though we must take an HIV test first."

Behind the characters in the same issue, billboards sport catchphrases such as "True Love Waits" and "Sex can wait, but my future cannot." Also appearing are blue billboards for PSI's Protector condoms, with the slogan, "So strong. So smooth." The condom advertisements appear more often in other issues. One Kikosi issue is devoted entirely to the troubles main character DJ Smooth encounters when he refuses to use a condom with his girlfriend.

Teenagers noticed early the veiled safe sex message of Kikosi. PSI threw a Kikosi publicity bash with music, dance, and skits on Aug. 19 at London College, a Kampala high school. Students from the school complained that the program was too sexually provocative.

"I must confess most of the students were not impressed about the outcome of the event," wrote 12th-grader Gloria Limo, "This was because the Kikosi members did not promote abstinence, which we expected them to bring out to students." Another student said the comics "promoted condom use and sex."

Martin Ssempa, a pastor and 16-year abstinence educator, collected these and other written complaints from the students after he attended the PSI event. He said he has been lobbying the local USAID mission for months to get funding for a faith-based program that reaches 5,000 college and high-school students a week: "They just say, 'Wait, maybe next month.' They need to come down to the people who are really doing the work-they're not leveraging them."

Mr. Ssempa complains too that groups such as PSI meet official U.S. policy on ABC by drizzling abstinence slogans onto old condom campaigns. "It is like a Frenchman trying to speak Chinese," he said. "They just can't live with the fact that you can teach abstinence to young people."

The agency usually funds smaller faith-based groups indirectly, by first awarding large groups such as PSI and tasking them to disburse the money. This year USAID did fund several homegrown abstinence and faithfulness programs. The largest recipient-run by Mrs. Museveni-received $3 million to reach elementary-school children. In general, however, the system leaves educators such as Mr. Ssempa at the mercy of organizations philosophically opposed to them.

Bush AIDS appointees in Washington argue that changing traditional hostility to ABC is long and slow work. Anne Peterson, USAID assistant administrator for Global Health, says 90 percent of government-distributed condoms in Africa go toward AIDS prevention, geared toward high-risk groups such as prostitutes and couples where one partner is HIV positive and the other is negative. "Five years ago the secular public-health world would laugh if you suggested abstinence or faithfulness as a public-health message with any merit," Ms. Peterson said. "They saw it as an imposed religious mandate. To change that view means moving people out of firmly held stereotypes of what can work or not."

In the desperate battle against AIDS, that will gobble time Uganda and other countries may not have. Because Western donors control the AIDS war coffers, African governments often feel the pressure to conform to their ideas. That was obvious, says Mr. Green, in the crafting of two major AIDS policy documents. One is the master plan for all anti-AIDS measures until 2006, or the National Strategic Framework, backed by USAID.

Mr. Green formally requested that USAID Kampala mission director Vickie Moore address the document's gaping holes. "The only place I found abstinence, fidelity, or ABC is mentioned in the 63-page document is just in two comments in passing that Uganda's prevention policy is to promote ABC," he wrote in a letter. "Tellingly, it is mentioned under 'emerging issues,' a conscious or unconscious acknowledgment that the donors have not promoted the A or B of ABC so far." Ms. Moore did not respond directly to his request, said Mr. Green, instead punting it to a lower-ranking official.

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