GLOBAL: Religion - a double-edged sword in HIV fight

Many churches, including this one in Angola, advocate abstinence and faithfulness, but not condoms
Mexico City, 5 August 2008 (PlusNews) - The contribution of faith-based organisations to the treatment and care of people living with HIV and AIDS is well known, but it is less clear whether religion is an aid or a barrier when it comes to HIV prevention efforts.

According to UNAIDS, 70 percent of the world's population identify themselves as members of a faith community, putting religion and religious leaders in a privileged position to influence people's behaviour and attitudes.

Addressing a special session on religion and HIV at the 17th International AIDS Conference in Mexico City, Richard Eves, of the Australian National University described how, in Papua New Guinea, where most people are Christians, the church has played a key role in caring for orphans, and encouraging people to test for HIV.

"But when it comes to prevention, many religious leaders still preach that sikAIDS [a term used to refer to AIDS in Papua New Guinea] is a consequence of sexuality and promiscuity," he said. "Others talk about AIDS using an apocalyptic narrative - they see it as a sign of the end of times."

A 2007 World Health Organisation report found that faith-based organisations were providing 33 to 40 percent of all HIV-related care and treatment services in Zambia and Lesotho. In fact, the authors calculated that between 30 and 70 percent of all health-care infrastructures across the African continent are operated by faith-based groups.

But, the response of the religious community to HIV and AIDS has not always been positive. Religious leaders and groups have contributed to the stigmatisation of people living with HIV and to negative attitudes towards sexual minorities.

''When it comes to prevention, many religious leaders still preach that AIDS is a consequence of sexuality and promiscuity''
"Both sexuality and religion have played an essential part in human society, but in recent history, the church, and particularly the [Roman] Catholic Church, has developed sexual regulations that treat the body as a sacred object and view sexuality as an impurity," commented Gabriela Rodriguez, of Mexico's National Population Council.

She noted that the Church tends to ignore the reality of adolescent sexuality and the fact that in many parts of the world, youth as young as 15 are at a high risk of contracting HIV.

According to Rodriguez, religious ideals are often hijacked by political leaders trying to gain influence, to the detriment of the fight against HIV. The United States government, for instance, has come under fire for attempting to influence HIV programmes funded by the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), to focus on abstinence and faithfulness, at the expense of programmes promoting condom use.

"There must be a separation of Church and State – the State should not interfere with religious questions," said Rodriguez.

In a clear case of religion influencing the State, homosexuality has been criminalised in many countries, including India. Ashok Row Kavi, a gay rights activist from India, said that historically Hinduism had celebrated sexual openness but had become increasingly conservative under Mughal and British rule. "Because of this, groups such as men who have sex with men have been sidelined in the fight against HIV, because of their underground nature."

Preaching the HIV gospel

Religious leaders around the world are starting to use their influence to participate positively in the global HIV prevention effort. In June, Hindu religious leaders from all over India pledged to include HIV information in their discourses, rituals and festivals; religious scholars in Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Somalia and Sudan are beginning to include HIV prevention messages in their sermons; and Christian leaders are talking more openly about issues to do with sex and sexuality.

Under pressure from members of Congress, the recently renewed PEPFAR legislation has removed a requirement for prevention programmes it supports to dedicate at least one-third of funds to abstinence campaigns.

"In Papua New Guinea, we now have some Catholic nuns handing out condoms and posters about HIV outside churches," said Eves, who recommended dialogue with religious leaders rather than attacking them for their methods and ideologies.


Theme (s): Care/Treatment - PlusNews, HIV/AIDS (PlusNews), Prevention - PlusNews,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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