Standing in a gilded stateroom in London's Westminster Palace was a slight young woman from Kenya named Juliet Awuor, preparing to tell her story to members of Parliament, heads of British and international NGOs and the press. It was early March and Population Action International's latest documentary—Abstaining from Reality: U.S. Restrictions on HIV Prevention—was making its worldwide premiere in the U.K, followed by events in the Parliaments of Denmark and Sweden. Juliet, who never in her 24 years had left Kenya, had bravely flown to London so she could share her story of contracting HIV the very first time she had sex because neither she nor her boyfriend knew how to use a condom.
Filmed last summer in Kenya and Uganda by former PAI staffer and current National Geographic filmmaker Daniele Anastasion and produced by PAI's Sr. Policy Research Analyst Wendy Turnbull, Abstaining from Reality provides a snapshot of the Bush administration's abstinence-only approach to HIV prevention as part of its global HIV/AIDS assistance. The nine-minute documentary examines how these ideologically-driven programs are actually endangering the lives of the people they're supposed to be protecting. With the recent resignation of Ambassador Randall Tobias as USAID administrator and the upcoming reauthorization hearings on PEPFAR (President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), the film has unexpected urgency and poignancy.
Juliet recalls watching her life story onscreen in London: "As I watched the documentary for the first time, I felt like crying all over again but I kept saying to myself that I'm through with crying. I felt so honored to be in Parliament with all those people watching my story." The film's depiction of government-funded programs that emphasize abstinence for young people and faithfulness for married couples left many Europeans in tears.
Now PAI is launching the film in the United States, beginning with an event on Capitol Hill on May 15. Working with partner organizations including SIECUS, amfAR, Planned Parenthood Golden Gate, IWHC, San Francisco AIDS Foundation and many others, PAI will take the film to New York City, San Francisco and Ottawa in the coming weeks. Although Juliet was denied a visa to visit the United States, she will attend the screening in Canada.
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Rosemarie Muganda Onyando, Director of the Centre for the Study of Adolescence in Kenya, and a key commentator in the documentary, will be speaking at all of the U.S. events. In the film, Rosemarie says, "To strictly say abstinence only is like walking into a hospital ward and having all these patients with different ailments and saying, ‘Okay, this is a prescription, it is the same prescription for all of you.'"
Few people who have seen the film have not been moved by Juliet's story and by the urgent need to eliminate the abstinence-only approach that is clearly undermining efforts to prevent HIV transmission. In Europe, several people asked us, "Why does the U.S. government insist on these flawed policies?" It will be interesting to see how U.S. audiences react. There is power in showing a human face when talking about policies.
As for Juliet, she is indomitable. Despite losing a baby and suffering a stroke soon after her HIV diagnosis, despite living in a poor neighborhood of Nairobi devoid of most public services we take for granted, she is filled with confidence and plans for the future. "I am hoping to go to university and get a career," she says. "I hope to study mass communications and counseling for youth. I hope that one day I'm going to change my family's life."
Watch our preview below or go catch the full version of "Abstaining from Reality." It may well change your life.