There was a time in America when the above headline would not have aroused suspicion;; we would have expected a certain number of religious organizations to apply for and receive grants to help fight a serious syndrome that causes devastating disease and death. Religious organizations have taken an active role in promoting a number of social programs, from the Vietnamese resettlement effort to providing food for the nation's poor.
What makes the headline different this time around is the conflict between what is needed to overcome the AIDS virus, and what is taught by many of the religious organizations receiving grants. Take, for example, Catholic Relief Services, which was awarded $6.2 million to teach "abstinence and fidelity" in three countries. The group claims it offers "complete and accurate" information about condoms, but does not promote, purchase, or distribute them.
Or World Relief, a group established by the Natonal Association of Evangelicals. World Relief receieved $9.7 million to do abstincence work in four countries. Samaritan's Purse provides community education about AIDS, though not without education about Christianity, and World Vision, also operates an educational prevention program which "may include" information on condom use.
In other words, 23% of the White House's $15 billion AIDS package has gone to groups who either do not even mention the word "condom," or who mention it only as a last resort.
It is important to point out that the use of condoms is not a tidy solution to the problem of AIDS in poor countries:
Many men in Africa, especially South Africa, believe that having sex with a virgin will cure AIDS. This belief (a 3-year study of 28,000 men in South Africa showed that 1 in 5 of them believed in this "cure") has led to a rise in infant rape.
In South Africa, a woman is raped every 20 seconds.
In poor countries, girls and women are often forced into prostitution by poverty or family coercion.
In many cultures, the use of condoms in marriage indicates a lack of trust, yet in these same cultures, there is often a lot of sex outside of marriage.
To solve these very serious problems, there must be massive education, and strong programs to empower women. Rape victims, prostitutes, and adolecent brides cannot expect to have any success in suggesting the use of condoms or--in the case of the latter two groups--providing condoms to their sex partners. But condoms are part of the answer for family planning, for marriages in which AIDS education has taken place, and among young men and women who learn about what causes the spread of AIDS.
Though condom use cannot solve the problems of rape (including sanctioned marital rape), forced prostitution, and female powerlessness, it is a vital part of the solution once AIDS education and female empowerment have begun to take hold. Teaching abstinence to hundreds of thousands of potential rape victims, on the other hand, does nothing but further endanger the people it is supposed to be helping.