WASHINGTON – South African politicians are accusing American charitable dollars of helping to promote oral sex between teenagers in their country.
They say the country's leading AIDS charity, bankrolled by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Kaiser Family Foundation, has told thousands of teenagers to engage in oral sex in a bid to halt the spread of HIV, an epidemic that has infected one in five adults in South Africa and is expected to leave one million orphaned by the end of 2005.
Lovelife, the country's leading HIV activist group is attempting to combat this scourge by distributing literature, paid for with American charitable donations, across the nation that argues teenage oral sex could save lives.
Lovelife officials say that preaching abstinence in South Africa is a waste of time because the HIV crisis there is so dire, and teenagers are so sexually active. More than 50 percent of South Africans have engaged in sexual intercourse by their 16th birthday.
Some South African lawmakers disagree with Lovelife's methods, despite the support of South Africa's first lady, whose husband President Thabo Mbeki has generated controversy for his handling of the AIDS crisis there.
They say oral sex is also risky and the campaign should focus on abstinence as the only truly safe behavior.
That's also the opinion of Pat Fagan, a research fellow on family and cultural issues at the Heritage Foundation, who strongly disagrees with the strategy of the Lovelife program.
"This strategy, I think, is disastrous. And you look at what's happening in Africa, where by-and-large this strategy is the one funded and pushed, and Africa is an HIV basket case," he said.
Fagan said one abstinence program is working in Uganda, so why not in South Africa?
"I wish I could get to Bill Gates and say, 'Bill, will you come and have a look at this,'" Fagan said.
Of course, Lovelife, which argues that it's more realistic to try and moderate sexual behavior rather than stamp it out altogether, doesn't just talk about sex, supporters argue.
"In South Africa, there is very little for kids to do after school," said Judith DeSarno, president and CEO of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association. "The Bill Gates Foundation and the Kaiser Family Foundation should be saluted because the other part of the Lovelife program is to give kids other outlets. There's massive computer training. There's basketball programs in places that kids never saw basketball before. And coupled with that is this information of if you're going to be sexually active, please, please do something that will not kill you."
The Lovelife campaign has won more than $7 million in support from the charitable foundation overseen by Bill and Melinda Gates. The Kaiser Family Foundation is also a major funder.