The World

Strait-Laced Hem in Straight Talk for Uganda Teens

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Thirteen years ago, two female anti-AIDS activists in Uganda started Straight Talk, a frank and pioneering sex education forum for African teens. Today, while not officially censored, it copes with a sense of being hemmed in.

Youths from Kumi in eastern Uganda

KAMPALA, Uganda (WOMENSENEWS)--A poor cow herder in rural Uganda has placed his hopes in his teen daughter. Smart and hardworking, she wants to be a doctor someday. He can't afford her school tuition, so his rich employer agrees to pay.

There is only one catch, which she does not tell her father: She is now the rich man's concubine. She wonders if she is correct in calculating that her education is worth more than her chastity.

Her dilemma is all too familiar to anti-AIDS prevention workers at the Straight Talk Foundation, to whom she wrote seeking advice. In Africa, sex is often the only currency a young woman has.

"We tell people, 'Abstain from sex while in school, avoid sugar daddies," said Anne Akia Feidler, a co-founder of the group. "Well, the truth is, many girls have graduated because they have sugar daddies."

Thirteen years ago, Straight Talk became one of the first organizations of its kind in Africa, providing frank advice on sex and relationships to teens in newspapers and on the radio. It is now known as one of the most successful anti-AIDS groups in Uganda, among the countries first and hardest hit by the disease.

From the bustling capital to the guerilla-infested villages of the North, thousands of Ugandan adolescents--the majority of them girls--write to Straight Talk each year. The walls of its Kampala offices, in an old colonial building surrounded by mango trees, are lined with black binders containing thousands of handwritten letters. They seek advice on topics from heartbreaks to menstrual cramps to losing a parent to AIDS.

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With a formula of frank sex and relationship advice appealingly packaged with colorful cartoons, quizzes and pop music, Straight Talk became a model for similar organizations in Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia, among others. But like other anti-AIDS groups in Africa, it has also struggled to keep pace with the changing politics surrounding the epidemic.

Changing Climate of HIV Prevention

"The whole thing--the climate surrounding HIV prevention--has changed since the early days," said Cathy Watson, a former nurse and journalist who, with Feidler, started Straight Talk with a small grant from UNICEF in 1993.

In the early 1990s, Uganda was still struggling to recover from 25 years of dictators and war, which had fueled the epidemic. It was in those years that Yoweri Museveni, who promised to restore peace to the country after taking power in a 1986 coup, became the first African leader to openly acknowledge the catastrophe of AIDS.

He encouraged Western-funded prevention campaigns to teach people how to protect themselves. Public health experts theorized that if young people could be taught safe sex practices early, they would remain less likely to contract the virus and spread it later.

"We saw this window of opportunity," said Dr. David Serwadda, director of the Institute of Public Health at Makerere University in Kampala. The first issue of Straight Talk, a black-and-white insert in the state-owned newspaper, told readers that its goal was to encourage teens to put off sex until they were older. "But it is not going to preach," it read. "And it is not going to pretend that kids aren't having sex. Many are."

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