Religious beliefs and traditions in Africa continue to influence the way HIV is spread, especially among young women. There is a great need to understand these issues from a faith-based perspective, so that church leaders may engage in a constructive dialogue to help and support women threatened by the pandemic.
The recent International Training Institute (ITI) on Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights and HIV, held from 16 to 22 March, in Arusha, Tanzania, shed light on these issues. The training was organized by the World YWCA, with active participation from the World Council of Churches (WCC).
Addressing HIV and how it affects women in communities responds to the essence of several statements from the churches on HIV, the WCC's work carried out through its project the Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiative in Africa (EHAIA), as well as the World YWCA's commitment to women's rights which prioritized HIV and AIDS among other issues since 1987.
The statements by churches and ecumenical organizations have outlined the key factors that fuel the HIV pandemic, especially among young women. These factors include stigma, discrimination, lack of information and access to Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH) services and HIV treatment.
Religious beliefs and traditions
One aspect of the situation which was reflected in discussions at the World YWCA training in Arusha was the influence of religious beliefs and traditions.
There are two sets of beliefs, including both "life-giving" and "life-diminishing traditions". In some situations, these traditions restrict women's and girls' access to SRH services and compromise their decision-making abilities. This eventually exposes them to the risk of HIV infection.
Silence in the name of traditions is often maintained on matters related to sexuality. There is a pressing need to question such traditions.
In times of HIV and AIDS, it is important to reconsider the traditional definition of family, comprised of a man, woman and children. In order to respond to households headed by grandmothers, single parents or even children themselves, it is critical to consider that HIV in many ways has impacted and changed our socio-religious settings.
Need for dialogue, engaging religious leaders
Discussions at the Arusha training show that dialogue and advocacy are sorely needed to engage religious leaders in formulating effective responses to HIV and AIDS. This is crucial, as most religious leaders do not have the necessary skills and tools to address major crises related to the HIV pandemic.
Religious leaders must create "safe spaces" where HIV-positive children are supported. Such spaces facilitated by the religious leaders can help HIV-positive children to understand the real possibility of becoming teenagers living with the virus, and can bring positive change in prevention messages.
Churches to listen, with love and compassion
Following the Christian conviction that all people are created in the image of God, churches dealing with the HIV and AIDS threat need to listen with love to sexual minorities. Particular attention must be given to bisexuals, who due to stigma and discrimination are often forced to marry. As a result, they end up putting their partners at risk of HIV infection.
The understanding of churches varies in how to address HIV related issues. There are some churches that need to reject a prevailing mindset which declares HIV a curse and a punishment from God. Such a mindset eventually denies people living with HIV, including women and girls, of their basic rights to life, education and SRH services.
* Ayoko Bahun-Wilson works for the EHAIA based in Togo. Sophie Chirongoma, also engaged with EHAIA, is a member of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians based in Zimbabwe. They shared these reflections from their participation in the World YWCA training in Tanzania.