Uganda's Shift in AIDS Policy Tied to U.S.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Uganda's first lady Janet Museveni is running for a seat in parliament on Feb. 23. Anti-AIDS activist Beatrice Were might have supported her a few years ago. But now she blames her for restigmatizing the disease with help from U.S. funding.

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A Human Rights Watch report last March strongly criticized U.S. health policy in Uganda. "As the largest single donor to HIV-AIDS programs in Uganda, the United States is using its unparalleled influence to export abstinence-only programs that have proven to be an abject failure in its own country," authors charged.

Museveni, who is standing for re-election this week, seized power in 1986 and has been widely criticized for intimidating opposition to his own party, the National Resistance Movement. Last week, three opposition supporters were shot by security forces during a campaign increasingly marred by bouts of violence. Museveni was once called a "beacon of hope" for democracy in Africa by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, but now his government is drawing fierce criticism for stifling the press, vote-rigging and modifying the constitution so he can continue to hold office.

Funding 'Be Faithful' Prevention

Janet Museveni

Of the $186 million that Uganda is set to receive from the U.S. in 2006, the bulk goes toward treating people using antiretroviral therapy. Twenty percent of the total--or $37.2 million--is earmarked for preventing HIV transmission through sex. Now, because of the new requirements, over $24.5 million of this funding will go toward a "be faithful" policy that critics such as Were say leave women unprepared for the realities they face. Many women and girls are unable to insist on condom use within marriage, for fear of being labeled unfaithful. Others are compelled by poverty to engage in sex work.

Young women disproportionately bear the burden of this emphasis on abstinence, the Human Rights Watch report said, because in a country that restricts women's ability to inherit property, they are frequently supported financially by older men and are often unlikely to negotiate condom use within marriage for fear of being labeled unfaithful.

"Ugandan women face a high risk of HIV in marriage as a result of polygamy and infidelity among their husbands, combined with human rights abuses such as domestic violence, marital rape and wife inheritance," the report states.

Women are further hindered from exerting control over their sex lives by the absence of any laws against marital rape. Over 1.7 million people, primarily in northern Uganda, are displaced by civil conflict, producing a high level of social instability in which sexual violence can thrive, according to Refugees International, a nongovernmental organization that has been working in Uganda since 2002.

Even in areas that are not conflict zones, such as the Rakai district in the southwest, sexual violence is rampant. There, 14 percent of female teens reported that their first sexual experience was coerced, according to a December 2004 report by the New York-based Guttmacher Institute. These young women were less likely to have used contraception than those who had had consensual sex; 43 percent of them had experienced coerced sex in the past 12 months.


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--Allison Stevens contributed to this story.

Anna Louie Sussman is a freelance journalist based in New York City. Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief for Women's eNews.


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