Letter from the US: Nature and Bono conspire against sound HIV/AIDS policy
By Melissa Ditmore*
Brazil has been an inspiration for me, as an activist focused on sex workers’ rights, because sex workers are genuinely included in your public health measures addressing HIV/AIDS. At home in the US, I was excited about the reauthorization of PEPFAR because a coalition of approximately 40 organizations in the United States was working together with legislators in the Democratic party to advocate for better policy, particularly the removal of the abstinence earmark and the anti-prostitution pledge. The US has two chambers of government, the House and the Senate. The bill to re-authorize PEPFAR was to go to markup for the House on February 7. However, tornadoes in the American South forced some democrats to return to their home states where tornadoes had ripped apart homes and communities. For this reason, the discussion of PEPFAR in the legislature was postponed until February 14. At this time, many of you saw the letter against the pledge that was circulated in Brazil, to illustrate the reasons why the pledge was detrimental to HIV prevention efforts. This delay gave time to other advocates working against our interests, and even for four organizations who had agreed to be part of our bloc to commit grave deception and meet with Republican members of the legislature. Global AIDS Alliance, Bono’s One Campaign and Debt AIDS Trade Africa (DATA,) and AIDS Health Foundation met with Representative Chris Smith’s office to try to cut a deal that would increase funding and abandon the efforts of our bloc of non-governmental organizations. At this point, Tom Lantos, the main sponsor of the Democrats PEPFAR reauthorization bill, without the abstinence earmark and without the anti-prostitution pledge, distributed a press release citing the evidence that pushed him to stand against the abstinence earmark and the anti-prostitution pledge. Scott Swenson wrote, “Tom Lantos understood that, and so should Bono, DATA, the One Campaign and the Global AIDS Alliance. This is the moment to fight for what’s right against ideologues who contributed to the spread of the AIDS pandemic for the first 25 years, and continue to stigmatize many,” of this betrayal by four agencies that sacrificed effective policy for continued funds, even if these funds were to be spent irresponsibly.
Then Lantos died after a long battle with cancer, and his memorial was set for February 14, so the discussion of PEPFAR was postponed until February 27. The death of Tom Lantos proved fatal to efforts to improve PEPFAR. In the end, the Democrats gave up their challenge to the anti-prostitution pledge without being asked to by Republicans, and while the abstinence earmark has been removed, it has been replaced with a requirement for 50% of funds to be spent on “behavior change” defined as abstinence, delay of sexual debut, monogamy and fidelity. I am not optimistic that this will be implemented with any clarity, not after the lack of clarity and self-policing of the anti-prostitution pledge has led to extreme discrimination against sex workers around the world. Women in general will share this onus, and my only consolation is that this may push a wider rejection as more people may be more affected by these problems. It is cold comfort when HIV funding could be better spent on evidence-based proven effective methods that were reflected in Lantos’ bill.
*Research consultant to the Sex Workers Project of the Urban Justice Center
:: Posted in 03/31/2008 ::