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POLITICS: USAID Sued Over Anti-Prostitution Policy

William Fisher

NEW YORK, Aug 23 2005 (IPS) - A U.S.-based family-planning charity is formally challenging Washington’s “anti-prostitution” policy, calling it an unconstitutional infringement of speech that is undermining international efforts to stem the spread of HIV/AIDS.

The group, DKT International, filed its lawsuit in district court against the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and its administrator, challenging the requirement that U.S. and foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs) receiving USAID funding adopt a policy “explicitly opposing prostitution and sex trafficking”.

USAID adopted the rule requirement in June, as one of a number of policies advocated by the “pro-life” religious right. Other George W. Bush administration initiatives include endorsement of the so-called Mexico Protocol, which forbids abortion counseling in family planning programmes overseas.

U.S. observance of the protocol – termed “the global gag rule” by family planning professionals – was rescinded during the Bill Clinton administration (1992-2000) but reauthorised by Bush on his first day in office in January 2001.

Under the rule, foreign family planning agencies may not receive U.S. funds if, with their own funds, they counsel on or refer for abortion, advocate for more lenient abortion laws in their own country, or provide abortion services.

DKT’s president, Philip D. Harvey, said the anti-prostitution and sex trafficking policy “does a grave disservice to international AIDS-prevention programmes and to those who carry them out. The policy does no good, and is clearly doing considerable harm.”

He told IPS, “I have found that non-governmental organisations around the world really despise this anti-prostitution pledge. In addition to making their work harder, it undermines their integrity, insults them really.”

DKT International is a non-profit organisation based in Washington. It manages contraceptive social marketing programmes for family planning and AIDS prevention in 11 countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. DKT’s programmes currently serve just under 10 million couples, with an operating budget of 50 million dollars.

Harvey said ameliorating the impact of HIV/AIDS requires “work with persons at highest risk of infection, including those in the sex trades”.

“We deal with sex workers as equals,” he said. “We accept what they do as part of the reality of today’s world, and we do our best to empower them so they can adopt practices that will minimise the risk of HIV transmission for themselves and their partners and improve their chances of getting access to life-saving health services. To do this work under an ‘anti-prostitution’ policy would be dysfunctional.”

He added, “Such a policy further stigmatises the very people we are trying to help. It requires us to condemn what sex workers do for a living, thus undermining the relationship of trust and mutual respect required to effectively conduct AIDS-prevention work. DKT will not allow its field workers to be put in that position.”

The U.S. policy, he declared, “harms America’s image and America’s interests abroad. No one pretends that such a policy will contain or ameliorate the darker aspects of the world’s oldest profession. It represents posturing by American politicians who are increasingly seen around the world as patronising, bullying, and obsessed with sex.”

“By coercing the speech of private parties,” he added, “the policy violates the First Amendment rights – and the integrity – of the organisations that are forced into compliance.”

DKT’s programs are supported by the Packard, Hewlett, and Gates Foundations, and by the German KfW, the British DFID, and the Dutch, Irish, and Indian governments.

As a result of refusing to adopt USAID’s policy on prostitution, DKT has lost USAID support for its AIDS-prevention work in Vietnam. Its lawsuit seeks injunctive relief to permit it to resume this work.

Meanwhile, in Kabul, Afghanistan, seven reproductive health care centres formerly supported by the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) were reopened this month with help from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

Run by a local NGO, the Afghan Family Guidance Association (AFGA), the clinics were forced to close in June due to IPPF “funding problems”. IPPF’s U.S. affiliate, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, did not respond to telephone calls or emails regarding the nature of its funding problems.

“The UNFPA funding, 50,000 dollars for the next six months, is a vital bridging assistance this year until we are fully registered with IPPF in 2006 and get our budget from its core fund,” said Ahmad Zeya Yousufzai, AFGA’s executive director.

But according to AFGA, very little is happening on the issue of reproductive health care outside the capital, making the challenge and need for further funding even greater.

Afghanistan has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, with one woman dying there every 20 minutes. According to the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF, child mortality is also very high in the war-ravaged country. Afghanistan’s first national human development report, released in early March, indicated that 20 percent of children died before the age of five.

Yousufzai believes one of the reasons behind maternal and child mortality, as well as morbidity, is a lack of family planning and giving birth to too many children without a gap of two to three years between each live birth.

AFGA centres receive more than 700 women visitors each day. The centres offer guidance and services on family planning, HIV/AIDS awareness, youth and adolescence, reproductive and sexual health and gender-based violence advocacy.

Meanwhile, the anti-abortion Population Research Institute (PRI) is making plans to establish a pro-life office in Afghanistan “to assist Afghan women and families in their fight against the anti-natal agenda of U.N. agencies and anti-child NGOs”.

PRI said, “The recent legalisation of abortion by Kabul’s interim government was the catalystàAbortion in Afghanistan is now legal up to the third month of pregnancy. Although, according to reports, three doctors must certify that the abortion is a medical necessity, such regulations have quickly degenerated in other countries to abortion on demand.”

The Bush administration has withheld, for the third consecutive year, funds earmarked for UNFPA. It said the 34 million dollars would be used for other purposes. The decision was not unexpected, given the administration’s efforts to fire up its Christian-right-wing base in advance of last November’s presidential election.

UNFPA says it does not support abortion. It believes that abortion should not be promoted as a method of family planning. UNFPA promotes improved access to voluntary family planning to prevent unwanted pregnancies and eliminate the need for abortion.

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