Preventing HIV from a theological perspective

2014-10-10 00:00

HIV/AIDS is an almost forgotten society ill in South Africa today.

We have been faced with so many worries about TB and Ebola, crime and rape, that we have forgotten one of the most devastating diseases that plague the country’s people.

Last Monday, a panel of experts came together to discuss the prevention of HIV from a theological perspective. The presentation was conducted as an initiative of the Collaborative for HIV/Aids, Religion and Theology (Chart), and hosted by the likes of Dr Benson Okyere-Manu, Dr Lilian Siwila, Dr Herbert Moyo, Professor Beverley Haddad and Dr Stephen Carpenter.

The panel discussed the prevalence of HIV/Aids in our rural communities today, as well as ways in which the church and other religious and cultural institutions can help to combat the infection. According to Professor Beverley Haddad, South Africa is the centre of the epidemic and KwaZulu-Natal is the epicenter.

“There are 6 000 new HIV infections recorded each day in the world. Two out of three of these infections are recorded in sub-Saharan Africa,” Haddad said.

It was noted that the global mortality rates due to the virus have decreased significantly due to antiretroviral (ARVs), but the rates of infection have increased dramatically. Haddad said that this is due to dysfunctional health systems and the stigma surrounding the virus in many communities. According to her, the prevalence of the disease occurs mostly among young women in Africa, sex workers, drug abusers and gay or transgender individuals.

Dr Benson Okyere-Manu added that preventative measures need to be adapted to its specific occurrence in different communities. He suggested that churches and schools target children in spreading educational awareness about HIV/Aids.

“HIV prevention is a global, governmental, communal, family and individual matter. We need to provide support and care to help people in rural communities open up to the topic of Aids,” Okyere-Manu said.

Okyere-Manu suggests his own “2x2x2” principle that is a sort of pyramid initiative that seeks to educate two pupils, who educate another two pupils and so on.

Dr Stephen Carpenter highlighted the importance of the “ABCs” in combating the virus. These are abstinence, being faithful and using condoms.

In his view, there are shortcomings to this initiative. Firstly, abstinence among males is not popular and masturbation in the African culture is stigmatised. Migrant workers find it difficult to remain faithful as they seldom see their wives. Lastly, he says that condoms are shunned by many religious groups like Catholic institutes and traditional African belief systems.

According to him, 2,5 million people are on ARVs in South Africa.

“The churches need to support clinics and programmes, as well as come up with creative alternatives to labola,” Carpenter said.

Lastly, Dr Lilian Siwila presented her discussion on African sexualities, and the need to interpret African language, symbols and songs as a means to talk about sex and sexuality in traditional villages.

“How do we approach the culturally defined boundaries in society today?” she asked her audience before negotiating the use of indigenous semiotics in HIV/Aids awareness.

She argued that the meanings behind these traditional symbols can help to find new ways to talk about sex and sexuality to those who do not understand science, and are centred on cultural practices.

According to Professor Haddad, sex needs to come out of the closet in terms of theology and “we must all understand that the epidemic is not simply a moral issue, but a health issue”.

HIV/Aids has lost much of the attention that was focused on it in the past. Along with TB, it remains one of the deadliest killers in society today. A theological perspective such as the one outlined at the presentation, in combination with other initiatives across all fields, could reduce the number of people who contract the virus every day.

We are far from a totally cured society, but we should not lose hope in discovering new ideas and initiatives from different perspectives like this.

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