General Articles

World Bank Report Says Abstinence-Until-Marriage Messages Alone Are Ineffective

On September 16, 2006, the World Bank released its annual development report. This year’s report, titled World Development Report 2007: Development and the Next Generation , focused on the importance of investing in young people ages 12–24. The report, which has chapters covering education, poverty, and capacity building, also contains a chapter titled Growing up Healthy that emphasizes the need to broaden access to comprehensive reproductive and sexual health services for youth.

Notably, the report highlights the stark lack of evidence that abstinence-until-marriage programs are effective in halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and details the harm caused by denying young people access to safe, comprehensive, and confidential sexual and reproductive health services. The report explains that effective HIV-prevention education for youth must provide a range of information, such as discussing abstinence, contraception and condoms, and partner communication. It states, “messages must provide a range of options: programs providing only one message—say, on abstinence—will not reduce STIs [Sexually Transmitted Infections].”1

Furthermore, the World Bank states in its report that, “the experience to date suggests that dictating behavior change, that is, forcing people to make certain choices, is not likely to be successful.”2 To further illustrate this point, the report highlights a multitude of research on the ineffectiveness of virginity pledges and abstinence-until-marriage programs in reducing sexual activity or risks. According to the research cited, although virginity pledges may delay first sex, they have no impact on STI [sexually transmitted infection] incidence or pregnancy, because those who pledged were much less likely to use contraception than non-pledging youth once they engaged in sex.

Through its report, the World Bank illustrates how the lack of comprehensive sexuality education can lead people to engage in unprotected sex. Unfortunately, the World Bank reports that many youth worldwide are denied access to information about all available methods of preventing HIV/AIDS due to unfounded fears that providing comprehensive sexuality education will increase sexual activity.3 In truth, “studies from developing and developed countries show that more education is associated with healthier lifestyle choices.”4

The report goes on to explain that, “the most significant determinant of healthy behavior in youth—and of health in adulthood—is the capability of young people to make the right decisions.”5 Moreover, providing younger and older youth with “accurate and specific information,” about safer sex practices, including both abstinence and condom use, “is more effective than providing vague or general information.”6 Presenting specific information that addresses the real problems facing young people has repeatedly proven to be a successful strategy.7

The findings of this landmark report stand in stark contrast to the current policies of the U.S. Government spelled out in the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) . PEPFAR policy, instead of providing comprehensive sexuality education, currently requires that one-third of all prevention funding be spent on abstinence-until-marriage programming. This funding requirement favors the promotion of abstinence and be-faithful messages to youth over other proven prevention messages, such as education about correct and consistent condom use. The World Bank report clearly dismisses this narrow strategy as unsound.

“It should not be lost on us that this report was generated by the World Bank under the tenure of former Bush official and now World Bank President, Paul Wolfowitz,” said William Smith, vice president for public policy at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). “When the narrow abstinence-only-until-marriage agenda of the Bush administration has been rejected by even the most conservative organizations, such as the World Bank, it becomes even clearer that a change of course to more comprehensive interventions is of dire importance,” Smith continued.

A full copy of the World Bank’s World Development Report 2007: Development and the Next Generation is available at .

To learn more about the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), see SIECUS PEPFAR Country Profiles.


  1. “World Development Report 2007: Development and the Next Generation,” (Washington,DC: World Bank, 16 September 2006) 133.
  2. Ibid.,134.
  3. Ibid., 133.
  4. Ibid., 130.
  5. Ibid., 140.
  6. Ibid., 133.
  7. Ibid., 140.