Uganda's Success with AIDS Prevention
Firsthand research in Africa persuades anthropology major that faith-based organizations have a role to play. By Maureen Farrell

Maureen Farrell

Photo courtesy of Maureen Farrell

Can a person born with AIDS be able to grow up to the age of 17 or 18 years?

I find it so hard to maintain my emotion for long without having sex, and my worries is that won’t I one time get HIV virus?

I am in love with a girl, but according to rumors people say that she has got AIDS. For sure the girl loves me. … I am in a dilemma. Should I leave the girl or we should continue? Because we have even promised to marry each other.

— Questions about AIDS posed by high school students in Uganda, August 2002

In a small auditorium packed with nearly 300 high school students in rural Uganda, I read questions like these that the students had scribbled on bits of paper. In this small village in southwest Uganda, I was participating in an AIDS awareness seminar to collect data on HIV/AIDS prevention education for my senior honors thesis research in anthropology.

Uganda is an important place to study HIV/AIDS prevention. During the 1990s the government launched a multisector approach to prevention involving faith-based organizations, among many others. The country has demonstrated a clear reduction in HIV/AIDS incidence — approximately 20 percent in some areas.

With the support of an undergraduate research grant [see “Research Grants Open the Door to a World of Study,” spring 2002 Northwestern], a Katherine L. Krieghbaum Scholarship and a Friends of Anthropology at Northwestern grant, I traveled to Uganda for six weeks in the summer of 2002 to investigate faith-based HIV/AIDS prevention programs.

I wanted to incorporate religion into my thesis research to shed light on the controversy over condom promotion in HIV/AIDS prevention. Though numerous international humanitarian organizations and African governments promote condom use for HIV prevention, some faith leaders claim that condoms promote promiscuity or “free sex.” Anglicans and Muslims in Uganda do support condom use, but strictly within marriage. On the other hand, I heard Catholic Church officials in Africa advocate abstinence and prohibit the use of all contraceptives, even if one partner in a marriage is HIV positive.

Since President Bush announced $15 billion in international AIDS relief in January, my project is also relevant in the United States. Congress has debated the relative success of the components of Uganda’s “ABC” program — “Abstinence, Being Faithful and Condom Use.” Politicians and organizations have argued over whether condoms should be promoted in U.S.-funded projects and how much of the money should be allotted to “abstinence-only” prevention programs.

In Uganda I interviewed pastors, priests, Muslim imams and religious community members and observed and participated in HIV/AIDS education seminars around the country.

I had embarked on my research with, admittedly, a strong bias against the Catholic Church’s position. However, after I had numerous conversations about condom use with Ugandan priests dedicated to AIDS prevention, and I witnessed the receptiveness of so many community groups to faith-based HIV/
AIDS prevention programs, much of my cynicism about the Catholic Church’s anti-condom stance was dispelled.

I spent a weekend, for instance, with a Catholic AIDS awareness group called Youth Alive. In northern Uganda, where one out of seven adults has HIV/AIDS, I observed Youth Alive facilitators empowering 30 lively youths through small group discussions, role playing and skits to say “No to sex” and “I’m safeguarding my life against AIDS.”

My fieldwork brought me to realize that there is a place for the voice of religious communities in HIV/AIDS prevention. Regardless of differing opinions on condom use, faith-based organizations have great potential to strongly influence what people know about AIDS and how they behave. Policy makers grappling with the merits of condom promotion for HIV/AIDS prevention should not overlook the work of Uganda’s religious organizations.

Maureen Farrell (WCAS03) lives in Washington, D.C., where she is interning for the Congressional Research Service. She plans to pursue a career in African policy and development studies.

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