Former First Lady Nancy Reagan was ridiculed for her simplistic and fundamentally racist/classist approach to drug education in this country. Maybe the jeering was unkind, and I admit that I enjoyed it a little too much, but the program should have been laughed at. It was ridiculously naive.
And here we are again. First Lady Laura Bush is busy on an African tour, during which she (of course) has supported the official line that abstinence is an effective preventive for AIDS. Actually, she said it was a treatment for AIDS, but we'll assume that was just a slip-up. We're back to "just say no." Of course for any individual, abstinence will certainly help (far from the "100% effective" that Mrs. Bush claimed) to prevent AIDS. It's just that as an instrument of public policy it's unlikely to be effective.
Another less-than-brilliant comment from the First Lady: "In many countries where girls feel obligated to comply with the wishes of men, girls need to know that abstinence is a choice." On the face of it, this is a remarkably frank comment about sex and power from such a private and lady-like First Lady. But no points for accuracy, I'm afraid. It's not that the girls need to make a different choice; there needs to actually be a choice. She assigns the blame incorrectly. How exactly would a young girl say no, when she's been sold into prostitution or when there's a pervasive cultural belief that sex with a virgin cures AIDS?
I think it's a different initiative from the First Lady that stands a better chance of making a difference in reducing AIDS. While she's in Africa to shake hands with the newly-elected (female) president of Liberia, she's also touting a new textbook program. This new program is designed to provide school supplies to under-supplied African villages. Miraculously, these new textbooks will be written in Africa and will feature African cultures center-stage.
Here's what we know. Improving the education of girls and women makes a difference in the health of the family. That's true cross-culturally. Educated women expect, and even demand, for example, pre-natal care and immunizations. They also stand up for their personal dignity in rejecting forced sex.
The thing is, it takes a long time for education to work in this way. It hasn't fully worked in countries and cultures where women's rights are, in principle, acknowledged. And there's no evidence, of course, that education alone is entirely sufficient in improving health status. While we're waiting for education to work its magic, lots of people will die. We have to do better than "just say no" and blaming girls for AIDS transmission.
And we need to make sure that this textbook program actually materializes. Follow-through in these matters hasn't been exactly the hallmark of this administration.