*By Dorothy Kweyu
When a World Council of Churches (WCC) meeting on ecumenical HIV and AIDS response concluded last week in Limuru, Kenya, its message to the global HIV and AIDS community was terse: traditional ways of tackling the pandemic have failed.
During a public lecture at St Paul’s University in Limuru, held as part of the WCC meeting, Rev. Phumzile Mabizela shared the latest statistics on HIV, where rates of infection have risen in people ages 15 to 24 years. A 2012 UNAIDS study shows that, out of 1.6 million new infections, 33 percent were in young people. Mabizela is the executive director of the International Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV or AIDS (INERELA+).
An attentive audience of more than 300 heard: “We need to take seriously the fact that the common mode of transmission is heterosexual sexual activity.” In most cultures, the oral cultural discourse included elaborate systems and activities to promote sexuality education.
“The advent of western religions confused us and made us believe that these practices were pagan. The challenge is, these practices were not replaced by other more effective platforms to promote sexuality education,” said Mabizela, who considers the ABC (Abstinence, be faithful, use a condom) approach wanting because it reduces HIV to a sexual morality issue on assumption that key populations — especially teenagers — have the power to make decisions these days.
The SAVE (Safer Practices, Access to Treatment and Nutrition, Voluntary Counselling and Testing and Empowerment ) method developed by INERELA+ was described as “more comprehensive” by Mabizela in addressing sexuality issues and other means of HIV transmission, namely transfusion of contaminated blood, sharing of contaminated needles, and between a mother and her infant during pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding. The ABC method is still promoted by many religious communities and HIV actors. It ignores critical concerns about adolescents and women’s empowerment, which demands involvement from men and religious communities.
Challenges on the way
Speaking before Mabizela, the outgoing chairperson of the International Reference Group (IRG) of the WCC’s Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiatives and Advocacy (EHAIA), Astrid Berner Rodoreda said that prevention messages were couched in scary skeletal pictures that have been rendered obsolete by anti-retrovirals (ARVs) availability. However, while having 14 million people on ARVs is a success story, challenges have emerged, she said.
Rodoreda went on to say that “it’s not easy to take medicine for the rest of your life.”
There is need to prevent new infections alongside efforts to get every infected person on treatment. “We still have a long way to go,” Rodoreda warns, challenging governments and the international community to take HIV as seriously as they did recently with ebola.
The approach of using contextual Bible study, introduced in South Africa in the1990s, resonated well with the black-clad participants of the meeting on a day when “ Thursdays in Black: Towards a World without Rape and Violence Campaign” was launched at the 10th anniversary of the Tamar Trees of Hope and Life project at St Paul’s University. Trees were planted by participants of the IRG meeting, led by Prof. Charity Irungu from St Paul’s University, Bishop Godson Lawson from Togo, IRG chairperson and Rev. Dr Nyambura Njoroge, EHAIA’s programme executive at the WCC.
EHAIA has been using publications to address sexuality since 2001. Bishop Lawson described EHAIA’s record as “impressive”, singling out contributions by Prof. Musa Dube of Botswana and Ezra Chitando of Zimbabwe. Like Mabizela, the bishop regards HIV and adolescents as an important agenda for EHAIA. Although churches have an agenda for children up to about 12 years, there are few teenage-friendly structures and yet this age group is sexually active.
In spite of involving churches in HIV and AIDS campaigns, the problems still persist. Theologian and LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) activist Rev. Dummie Mmualefe, minister of the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa, decried hypocrisy in addressing same-sex issues.
Mmualefe said that, due to the personal involvement of Botswana’s former president Festus Mogae, “We have done ‘very well’ in making ARVs available. But complacency has set in and infection rates are on the rise, partly fuelled by the handling of gay and lesbian issues.” Mmualefe shared his observation that in some cases gay men are even asked for sexual favours by men in the churches and politicians. Such cases indicate hypocrisy that should be acknowledged, he said.
“There’s denial by the government, by the church, by everybody over LGBTI issues,” Mmualefe said, adding that HIV and AIDS are hardly ever mentioned in church.
The IRG provides support, guidance and policy advice for the EHAIA projects. The group facilitates interaction between stakeholders and experts and provides space for technical support. The IRG meets once a year. Currently the IRG has 18 members from sub-Saharan Africa, Jamaica, the Philippines and Europe and five field staff based in sub-Saharan Africa.
* Dorothy Kweyu, a Kenyan journalist, is the consulting editor at the Editorial Centre in Nairobi.