Criticism of condoms and restrictions on access to them are undercutting the fight against HIV in countries ranging from Nigeria to Peru to the United States, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday in a report. The New York-based human rights organization described condoms as the single most effective weapon against sexually transmitted HIV but said they are subjected to government-backed constraints in numerous countries. In some places, Human Rights Watch said, police confiscate condoms from AIDS outreach workers and use them as evidence of illegal prostitution or sodomy.
"Governments should be promoting condom use, not treating condoms like contraband," said Jonathan Cohen, a Human Rights Watch researcher. "The clear result of restricting access to condoms will be more lives lost to AIDS."
The U.S. government, although the leading donor to AIDS-fighting initiatives worldwide, was criticized for its support of "abstinence until marriage" HIV prevention programs that often depict condoms as unreliable and withhold any practical information about their use. "The Bush administration is spending millions of dollars on abstinence-only programs that mislead people at risk of HIV/AIDS about the effectiveness of condoms," said Rebecca Schleifer, another Human Rights Watch researcher. "Exporting these programs to countries facing even more serious epidemics will only make the situation worse."
Tony Jewell, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said the U.S. government does fund condom distribution through some of its HIV programs, but he defended the philosophy behind other programs which espouse the abstinence-only approach. "It's a scientific fact that you will not get a sexually transmitted disease if you do not have sex," he said.
Human Rights Watch also criticized religious leaders--including officials at the Vatican--who have publicly linked condoms with promiscuity. Worldwide, Human Rights Watch said, fewer than half the people at risk of sexual transmission of HIV had access to condoms, and even fewer had access to basic HIV education. (AP)