Jonathan Zimmerman: Abstinence Programs May Be Right For Africa

[Jonathan Zimmerman, a resident of Narberth and history professor at New York University, is teaching this semester at the university’s study-abroad program in Accra, Ghana.]

Accra, Ghana

I used to oppose abstinence-only education. It doesn’t persuade American teenagers to delay sexual activity, as a recent five-year study confirmed. And most American parents say they want their children receive wider instruction about sexual issues—including contraception—in their schools.

But I’m not in America anymore. I’m in Africa.

So was President Bush, who visited Ghana and four other African nations last week. One of his goals was to persuade Congress to double the funding for his campaign to fight global HIV/AIDS, from $15 billion to $30 billion. As in the past, however, one-third of the money spent on AIDS prevention will be earmarked for abstinence-only programs.

Democrats have threatened to block the bill unless Bush removes this provision, which they call a sop to the president’s conservative Christian base. But here’s the part they miss: it also resonates deeply with Africans. And that might be the best reason to support it over here, no matter what we make of it back home.

Consider the recent Valentine’s Day celebrations here in Ghana, which the minister of tourism declared “National Chocolate Day.” Part of the goal was to strengthen the cocoa industry—Ghana’s largest cash crop—and to make the country into a “chocolate tourism destination,” the minister said.

But most of all, the new designation aimed to quell “unnecessary sexual activities” among young Ghanaians. Valentine’s Day should promote “family bonds of love and friendship,” the minister explained, not “sexual promiscuity.”

Newspaper columnists eagerly took up the charge. “Innocent young girls will be caught in the net of fornication,” warned Sophie G. Awortwi in the Accra Daily Graphic, on the eve of Valentine’s Day. “It is the ploy of the devil to change their focus from their academic work to promiscuity and lust.”

And don’t even talk about homosexuality. Gay sex is illegal in Ghana, under the same statute that bars beastiality. In 2006, two men caught with gay pornography were sentenced to four years of hard labor in prison. Later that year, officials banned a proposed 2006 gay and lesbian conference in Accra.

“Government does and shall not condone any activity which violently offends the culture, morality, and heritage of the people of Ghana,” one spokesman explained. “Ghanaians were a unique people whose culture, morality and heritage totally abhorred homosexual practices and other forms of unnatural sexual acts.”

But then, the argument goes, the country was seduced by the hyper-sexual West. The papers are full of screeds against music videos and other cultural imports from Europe and the USA, which have supposedly corrupted Ghanaian morals. Instead of slavishly copying “Western promiscuity,” one columnist urged, Ghanaians should rediscover their traditional values of modesty, fidelity in marriage, and abstinence outside of it.

Never mind that Ghanaians and other West Africans practiced polygamy for thousands of years, or that homosexuality and prostitution have long histories here as well. The point is that sexual continence and restraint are powerful present-day themes in Africa, spurred by the most significant Western import of all: Christianity.

In 1900, roughly 10 percent of Africans were Christians; today, about half practice some type of Christianity. Compared to the West, meanwhile, their theologies are overwhelmingly conservative. That’s why so many Anglicans in Africa—including church leaders here in Ghana—have condemned the U.S. Episcopal Church for ordaining a gay bishop.

And it also helps explain the startling popularity of President Bush in Africa, where his own conservative style of Christianity—like his commitment to abstinence-only education—echoes local sentiments. As Ghana prepares to host Bush, I’ve read plenty of criticisms of his policies in Iraq. But I haven’t seen a single attack on his AIDS plan or its abstinence-only provision.

That doesn’t mean people are actually abstaining, of course. In Uganda, where First Lady Janet Museveni has spearheaded a Christian-themed abstinence campaign, one study showed that women who refrained from sex as teenagers were just as likely to contract HIV by age 24 as women who were sexually active as teens. And the HIV rate has remained steady in recent years even as the number of Ugandans with multiple partners has increased, which suggests that condom use—not abstinence outside of marriage—is the key.

For whatever reason, Uganda's rate of HIV infection plummetted 70 percent in the 1990s. President Bush has repeatedly attributed that success to the abstinence-only efforts of Ms. Museveni, who once led a "march for virginity" through the streets of Kampala. Using U.S. funds, Uganda has removed condom advertisements from billboards and replaced them with abstinence messages from local ministers. Perhaps HIV infections would have declined even further, with a more balanced approach. We really don’t know.

But here’s what we do know: on matters of sex, at least, Africans are deeply conservative. I might not share all of their views, especially about abstinence and homosexuality. But I’m a visitor here, like President Bush, and I’ve got to respect the beliefs of the people. And they’re much closer to the Bush’s than they are to mine.

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