African churches must confidently step into the lives of minority groups suffering from HIV and AIDS supporting them irrespective of their circumstances, said, author of A Walk at Midnight: Journeying with Abused Women and Girls towards inner Dignity and Wholeness, Catherine Mumbi Wanjohi, known for her work for sex workers faced with threat of HIV and AIDS in Kenya.
Founding member and executive director of the Kenya-based Life Bloom Services International, a non-profit Catholic organization, Wanjohi has been engaged with the Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiative in Africa (EHAIA), a World Council of Churches project.
With EHAIA's support last year, Wanjohi participated in the Pan-African conference of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians in South Africa, an experience she considers an "eye opener".
"I realized that not many churches and groups from Africa at the conference were directly addressing challenges faced by sex workers," she said.
Wanjohi says that sex is the principal means by which HIV and AIDS is spread, and it is often transmitted to unsuspecting clients of the sex workers. Our churches must face and address this reality, she says.
Appreciating church initiatives supporting women struggling against HIV and AIDS, Wanjohi mentions a church delegation's visit to the Naivasha Women Prison in Kenya, in March this year. The visit, Wanjohi says, was an opportunity to understand the situation of women inmates and support them through spiritual and practical means.
Wanjohi says that the delegation, which was comprised of members representing the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians - St Paul's University Chapter, Life Bloom Services International, churches and the EHAIA, was received with "joy from the inmates" who felt they were "remembered by God".
This visit made women in the prison feel that the community is becoming ready to embrace and help people at the margins faced with HIV and AIDS threat.
Churches' pastoral role
Wanjohi has spent a decade working with vulnerable women in Naivasha and has been educated as a teacher and counsellor at the Kenyatta University and the University of Durham, UK.
For her, links between the vulnerability of sex workers, HIV and AIDS and the churches' pastoral role are clear. Speaking about the Kenyan situation in particular, she explains that commercial sex workers are not only faced with HIV and AIDS but also gender-based violence, discrimination and social stigma.
"Churches in our country have not come out so much in the open to address this urgent challenge, though the number of sex workers, especially among adolescent girls, is on the increase. The situation of male sex workers is similar," she says.
On the other hand, Kenyan churches which have come up with programmes to address issues related to sex workers are perceived with suspicion, Wanjohi observes.
Yet Wanjohi sees great potential among churches and theological institutions to address these issues with more zest, with significant contributions from women theologians.
Women theologians, she says, in supporting vulnerable women, are capable of offering compassion, the bond of womanhood and serving as role models for the communities.
Through networks like the EHAIA, Wanjohi says, churches and theological institutions can be equipped in being places where vulnerable women can speak out. Projects that have managed to make a positive impact on minority groups struggling against HIV need to strengthen their connections with other organizations, she adds.
Wanjohi says that church-based groups and other organizations who share the same "focus on humanity" need to work together, so that the threat of HIV and AIDS is curbed and people in communities have the support they need.