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.

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Straight Talk Goes Down Easy

Today, Straight Talk publishes four-page color inserts that appear monthly in newspapers and are distributed in schools, clinics and shops across Uganda. It broadcasts 30-minute radio shows each week on 27 stations across the country in 11 local languages. It recently began a newspaper insert for teens in southern Sudan. The group employs some 90 people, including many youths who have been orphaned by AIDS. It receives funding from a variety of donor agencies and groups, mostly European.

Between 1992 and 2003, Uganda became known as the African "success story" in AIDS prevention as its percentage of HIV-positive adults dropped from 16 percent to about 6 percent, the only country on the continent to record such a decline. While the reason for the drop has been widely debated, the country's posture of openness has been widely hailed.

: Deo Agaba interviews a girl for his Straight Talk radio show.

But recently, much of the emphasis has shifted to so-called "abstinence-only" education, a strategy that has been encouraged by funding from conservative Christian groups and the Bush administration. Just a few years ago, billboards with colorful condom ads peppered the capital; now they have been torn down or replaced by ads--some funded by the U.S. government--telling teens to remain chaste until marriage. Ugandan first lady Janet Museveni, a fervent born-again Christian, has also championed the abstinence shift.

Though Straight Talk has never been explicitly censored, Feidler said, there was a feeling among prevention groups of being "hemmed in."

Pro-Abstinence Pressures

The Uganda office of Population Services International, a Washington-based organization that supplies free and subsidized condoms as part of its AIDS prevention program, said it was pressured recently by representatives of Bush's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and religious groups in Uganda to take down posters and pull radio ads. The organization has also seen its money from the fund reduced from $600,000 to $100,000, according to group officials.

"There was a feeling that we couldn't talk about condoms. That we should be careful. And young people started complaining that we had become bland," Feidler said.

The AIDS prevalence rate has wavered a bit, and most recently showed a slight decline, but it will be years before the effects of any trend in prevention tactics can be measured statistically.

Officially, the favored HIV-prevention approach in Uganda remains the multi-pronged message known as ABC, for "Abstain, Be faithful and, if you can't, use Condoms." But Serwadda agreed that, "There is a sense this abstinence message is drowning out all the others now."

Feidler, like many veterans in AIDS prevention, worries that expecting teens not to have sex is simply not realistic. She points to the young cow-herder's daughter, the would-be doctor who is exchanging sex for tuition payments.

"I don't know if telling that girl to abstain is really the right message," said Feidler. "Personally, I think I would tell her OK, I don't know what I would do, but make sure you have protected sex with that man."

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Rachel Scheier is a freelance writer based in Kampala.

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