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Ugandan first lady honored for support of abstinence promotion

WASHINGTON (BP)–Ten years ago 30 percent, or three out of every 10 people in the country of Uganda, were infected with HIV or AIDS. Today, that number has dropped to 6 percent of the population, or six out of every 100. It’s a significant statistic that the first lady of Uganda credits largely to faith-based abstinence programs for slowing the spread of the fatal disease in her country.

Janet Museveni spoke June 17 to a crowded room at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., during The Medical Institute for Sexual Health’s annual meeting. The institute presented Museveni with the “Hero Award” for the efforts she and her husband put forth to create awareness and for their success in promoting abstinence over “safe sex” methods.

Museveni said one of the most effective strategies used in communicating that message was through True Love Waits, a ministry of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention celebrating its 10th anniversary this year by displaying hundreds of thousands of abstinence commitment cards at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. More than 240,000 of the cards en route to Athens are from South Africa.

“Religious organizations played a major role in prevention [of HIV/AIDS] and had a strong influence,” Museveni said. “When we adopted the True Love Waits slogan, we found that the most important thing was focusing on our spiritual foundation and values.”

Uganda’s willingness to embrace the abstinence-until-marriage program helped turn the AIDS crisis around. Museveni cited a 2000 report in which 95 of 100 Ugandans were either abstinent or only had one sexual partner. She added that 99.7 percent of the population in Uganda is aware of HIV/AIDS.

In the late 1980s, Uganda was one of the countries hardest hit by the epidemic.

“The situation looked bleak…. Uganda was at its most vulnerable,” Museveni said. “This was more than a disease, it was a national disaster…. Our only hope was to sound a loud alarm.”

For the past 10 years, Museveni and her husband have promoted True Love Waits in speeches and ad campaigns and have worked closely with faith-based organizations such as the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board. One of those relationships was with Southern Baptist missionaries Larry and Sharon Pumpelly, who helped implement True Love Waits throughout the 1990s.

Pumpelly, now working at the International Mission Board’s main office in Richmond, Va., said the Musevenis’ influence added tremendous credibility to the program. He added that Janet Museveni, whom he described as a “committed Christian” and a prayer partner with his wife, Sharon, was a key element in the program’s success.

Museveni was especially helpful in persuading Uganda’s minister of education to allow True Love Waits material into the schools, Pumpelly said. “She became extremely instrumental in opening doors. Schools would close down for four hours at a time to allow us to bring True Love Waits in to teach the students.”

Pumpelly hopes other countries such as Kenya, where True Love Waits programs are beginning to prosper, will show similar improvements. The success of the program, he said, depends on young people’s willingness to embrace the program.

“The youth are dying to know what the truth is,” Pumpelly said. “But it’s about more than that. True Love Waits is about God’s plan for sex in your life, and when you get that right, AIDS goes away.”

Museveni referred to safe sex initiatives, such as distributing condoms to the public, as both irresponsible and ineffective. “The truth is, there is no safe sex outside of faithfulness in marriage” -– a foundational message of True Love Waits.

“One thing my husband used to say is that ‘a thin piece of rubber is all that stands between us and the death of our country if condoms are allowed to become the main means of stemming the tide of AIDS.’”

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  • Shawn Hendricks