AFRICA: Addressing the role of religion in HIV response

Faith-based organizations provide up to 70 percent of healthcare in some African communities
NAIROBI, 30 July 2010 (PlusNews) - At a church compound in Nairobi's Mathare slum, women and their children line up for food rations. Among them is Zipporah Mueni, an HIV-positive mother of five.

"I have come here to receive food which I will share with my children," said Mueni, whose husband was killed during the post-election violence that followed Kenya's 2007 presidential election. "My church is like my husband now."

The church also runs a health programme that provides Mueni and many others in her community with antiretroviral (ARV) treatment.

"This is a slum and everybody here is poor, but we decided that there were some who were not only poor but also widowed or living with HIV," William Aketch, pastor at the Free Pentecostal Fellowship Church in Mathare, told IRIN/PlusNews. "We designed a programme with members of the church to bring whatever little they can get every Sunday in terms of food or things like soap to share with such people and it has been helpful."

Faith-based organizations (FBOs) provide an estimated 30-70 percent of healthcare in Africa, says the health NGO, The Capacity Project.

Close to the community

"Faith-based organizations already have a rapport and trust with the local community to quickly respond to and access populations of humanitarian concern; [they are] able to use their networks to quickly pass messages and track those in need," said Rena Geibel, co-author of a recent study of faith-based NGOs working in emergencies by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), a UK-based think-tank.

''How is a woman who gets HIV because she has been gang-raped immoral?''
Other humanitarian actors often ignore FBOs in the HIV response, despite their positions of trust in many communities, which is a costly mistake, says Fiona Perry, co-author of the ODI study and global HIV/AIDS adviser for World Vision, an FBO.

The study found it was crucial for humanitarian workers to understand the role of FBOs in providing key services and to work with them to help maximise their HIV response.

Proceed with caution

However, in some cases, churches polarize communities by supporting one side in a conflict and only assisting people from certain ethnic groups.

In addition, ideological beliefs can interfere with the HIV response. "When you look at the church community, there is an over-emphasis on morality; this makes many people who are HIV-positive unwilling to come forward because they believe that it makes them appear immoral," said Aketch.

"What happens in situations of conflict, for example where women and children are raped, should be a starting point for changing people's - especially church leadership’s - beliefs that HIV goes to those who are immoral," he added. "How is a woman who gets HIV because she has been gang-raped immoral?"

 A recent article from the reproductive health information website, RH Reality Check, noted that international and local churches had been central in pushing Uganda's controversial Anti-Homosexuality Bill (2009), which is regarded as undermining the fight against HIV among men who have sex with men, a high-risk group.

In addition, the ODI study noted reports from Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo of religious leaders "encouraging members to stop taking ARVs to allow God to heal them".

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"[Challenges that faith-based communities face in fighting HIV] have been well documented and include issues such as providing partial information on HIV prevention - not discussing condoms for example, [and] avoiding key drivers of the HIV epidemic such as addressing gender and gender-based violence," Geibel said. "People... will tell you that a pastor cannot stand on the pulpit and hold both a condom and a Bible."

Training religious leaders

"There is a need to make church leaders learn... that people are not in control of their morality, for example in conflict; they need to know why women and girls engage in survival sex," she added. "This way, they will be able to address HIV in the different contexts."

Aketch noted that religious leaders should be trained in HIV counselling and in dealing with the youth, with whom they were sometimes out of touch.

The ODI study recommended that FBOs be mobilized to address stigma, harmful cultural practices and sexual violence and to help ensure the provision of HIV services to all members of the community.


Theme (s): Care/Treatment - PlusNews, Children, Conflict, Education, Food Security, Gender Issues, Health & Nutrition, HIV/AIDS (PlusNews), Prevention - PlusNews, PWAs/ASOs - PlusNews, Stigma/Human Rights/Law - PlusNews,

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

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Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation - SDC