Thursday, October 9, 2014

State Dept. Partners With 'Condom Pledge' Campaign for Youth, Children in Africa

    The banner, featuring a cartoon condom with a smiling face, reads "I am Mr. Condom. Use me whenever you want to have sex. I will protect you from STDs, early pergnancy [sic], and unwanted pregnancy." Across the top of the banner are the words "I took the condom pledge," the slogan from which the non-profit organization responsible for the banner takes its name. And while the stated goal of the group, which recently conducted a fund raising campaign in partnership with the US State Department for a project in Sierra Leone, is "normalizing condom use in youth populations around the globe," the photos shared by the group make clear that "youth" includes some very young children indeed.

    The Condom Pledge organization is careful to utilize the word "youth" on its website (the word appears more than a dozen times) and avoid "child" and "children" altogether. However, a video produced for the Pledge and the group's Facebook page include images of young children holding signs, children such as these young girls and boys, clearly well below the target ages of sixteen to twenty-six:

    While the U.S. State Department usually makes headlines for its role in negotiating political treaties and mediating military conflicts, the agency also plays a less visible role working to bring about social change throughout the world. One such effort is a program described in a recent blog post on State's website as "the Alumni Engagement and Innovation Fund (AEIF) 2.0, an initiative created in partnership by the U.S. Department of State and Rockethub, an online crowdfunding platform." Currently thirty-three AEIF projects are underway, run by alumni of the State Department's international exchange program. Projects range from providing business opportunities and training for low-income women in Nicaragua to training English teachers in Vietnam to eco-tourism in Bangledesh.
    The Condom Pledge project has already reached its goal of raising $3,000 as part of the State Department-Rockethub partnership. The State Department blog article mentions the program just in passing as "turning The Condom Pledge into a nationwide initiative in Sierra Leone." The Condom Pledge organization, however, prominently features the State Department partnership and official seal on its website announcing the fund raising effort.

    The full stated goal of the organization is "normalizing condom use in youth populations around the globe [to] counteract [religious/moral anti-condom] beliefs and ultimately stop the spread of HIV." Few details are available on the organization's website about what is involved in the Pledge campaigns other than a brief note that participants "first craft individualized signs that read, 'I took the condom pledge,'" and then "publicize their signs through social networks[.]" Unsurprisingly, condoms are in plentiful supply at Pledge events, literally distributed by the box.

Other participants are more creative in displaying their acquisitions:

    Not only are condoms distributed freely without regard to gender, the distribution of condoms is conducted in mixed-sex settings, rather than with women for girls and with men for boys:

   When asked to comment on the age appropriateness of the Condom Pledge campaign and whether or not any abstinence advice or other guidance is provided by this group, a US State Department spokesperson deferred to the Pledge organization for specifics on the group's activities. The spokesperson did note that "[s]ince the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, the project has also included an ebola education component, which includes important information on safeguarding yourself from the disease."
    The state department response further said, in part:
The department does not fund AEIF 2.0 projects. Projects must be funded by the public, and project leaders are responsible for promoting their projects...
Projects were selected by embassies (for foreign alumni-led projects) and program offices (for American alumni-led projects). All foreign alumni-led project leaders are past Alumni Engagement Innovation Fund (AEIF) winners. Americans are not permitted to lead AEIF projects, which is why program offices needed to nominate individuals with potential. After being vetted and cleared by the relevant posts, program offices, and PASC, those project leaders were asked to join AEIF 2.0. 
    While the state department is not directly funding The Condom Pledge or other AEIF projects, the agency is lending its promotional support to the projects as noted above, allowing the official State Department seal to be used in fund raising efforts, and describing the cooperation as a "partnership."
    Although the US government has promoted condom use in the past to stop the spread of AIDS, the ABC (Abstinence, Be Faithful, and correct and consistent Condom use) approach prioritized Abstinence and Faithfulness first. The Condom Pledge, on the other hand, appears to have a rather myopic approach perhaps best expressed by the banner with the cartoon figure mentioned earlier: "I am Mr. Condom. Use me whenever you want to have sex."
    When asked to comment about the ages of the children present at Pledge events and the appropriateness of mixing males and females at the events (even in the distribution of condoms) and whether that might prove an abuse-risk, a Condom Pledge spokesperson replied via email:
While our goal is to target individuals aged 16 to 26, we acknowledge the importance of providing sex education to not only older but also younger individuals as well.
In Sierra Leone, an estimated 5,000 youth aged 14 and under are currently infected with HIV, and of the youth aged 15 to 24, 24.6% of females and 11.0% of males had sexual intercourse before age 15.
The public health literature also demonstrates that in addition to its many benefits, sex education does not lower the age of sexual debut or increase sexual activity thereafter.
Condoms are distributed to youth regardless of their gender as The Condom Pledge supports female empowerment.
The Condom Pledge seeks to uphold the highest ethical standards. Any suspected abuse will be immediately reported to the relevant village chief, school director, or governmental authority. 
    Even accepting the premise that "sex education does not lower the age of sexual debut or increase sexual activity," the message "use me whenever you want to have sex" hardly seems a comprehensive or balanced approach. And this message, being delivered by The Condom Pledge with the backing of the US State Department, is in many cases, at least in Africa, reaching a disturbingly young audience.

    Only time will tell what the ultimate impact of this message will be.

Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

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