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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”

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By Nontando M. Hadebe

From a Panel Discussion on "Women of Faith Confronting AIDS"
Sponsored by Ecumenical Women 2000+

The pamphlet is flattering in their reference to me! I am a learner in the above subjects because I know there is still so much to learn. I look forward to our discussions where we will share and discover the way forward together.

The connection between HIV/AIDS, Gender and Religion is not an obvious one. Most of us are familiar with research findings that have revealed the particular vulnerability of women to HIV/AIDS and therefore are able to see the connections between Gender and HIV/AIDS. This vulnerability of women as a group to the pandemic has been attributed to their biology and position in society as a marginalized/oppressed group. The question that still has to be answered is how Religion and in this case the Christian faith fits into this? How is it possible to link HIV/AIDS, Gender and Religion? How can this link be used to speak about the eradication of poverty?

Religious context of Southern Africa

One can safely say that Christianity in its different forms is the major religion in this region with countries on average having over 50% of their population belonging to the faith. In some countries like South Africa the figure is as high as 80%. So faith and religion are major role players in society even though most of the time this power is not easily recognized. One can go to any village and there would always be a church - so its one of those organizations that cover the entire geographical area of the country and often governments are able to recognize the power of the church and often try to co-opt the church. The church is one of the few organizations that has regular, consistent contact with the community from grassroot to the towns. Hence the role of religious beliefs is significant in the struggle against HIV/AIDS, gender inequality and poverty.

I will begin by telling you a story based on true events and which can be replicated many times in our region in Southern Africa. From this story we will identify some of the underlying belief systems and see how such beliefs play out in the context of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, gender and poverty.

The story is about MamaThembi (not real name) who is an unmarried domestic worker with five children. Her only motivation for continuing with her job is her desire to ensure that all her children are educated so that they can find good jobs, have their own families and provide for her. Her strength comes from her faith in God and membership of a local church. Life was going well for her, her eldest daughter Phiwe, had qualified as a nurse and soon after married a teacher. She was expecting twins, her first granddaughters. MamThembi had heard about HIV/AIDS from the community radio station but she knew also from her church and community that it was a shameful disease. She did not know that her visit to her daughter in hospital was about to turn her life into a nightmare. She learnt from her distraught daughter that the twins were seriously ill and upon testing it was discovered that they were HIV positive. To make matters worse, Phiwe's husband had blamed her and left her. A few days later one of the twins died. Phiwe was distraught, she had been faithful, how could this happen to her, everyone thought that she was to blame. For MamaThembi, the nightmare had just begun, when her friends heard what had happened to her, they deserted her, she was so alone. Her pastor tried to comfort her but she could see that it was difficult for him, because he had in his sermons spoken about HIV/AIDS as a punishment from God. Her suffering continued because within that year the other twin died and shortly afterwards her daughter died. The care required by her daughter and grandchild used up all her savings and she was reduced to a beggar. At the funeral of her daughter the minister told her that although she is suffering in this world, there is another world where there will be no suffering and that God would be with her in her suffering. Sometimes she wondered about her daughter why did she suffer when she was a good wife? But again she remembered that this world is a world of suffering - she remembered the hymns sung at the funerals, which spoke over and over again, that there was another place of rest where there would be no suffering. This became MaThemba's new hope - she is on a journey to a new home away from this earth.

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I have used this story to show how faith or belief systems find expression in concrete realities that are experienced by ordinary people. It is through the experiences of faith persons in their engagement with the realities of life that provide us the true mirror of what our dogmas/creeds look like in the real world. I will pick on a few of these real life theologies and bring them out in the open so that we can together name and recognize their power in the lives of our people.

Theology of survival, which is, expressed when people accept their suffering and poverty as "their cross" and their faith as a means of being able to survive in their situation. This theology does not just happen - it is an outcome of a combination of teaching within the Christian tradition (I am aware that the tradition is not homogenous and will generalize) that:

  • Make poverty and suffering a virtue. The support for this comes primarily from an interpretation of the life of Jesus as "poor and suffering". It may be true that Jesus did not possess wealth but His identification with the poor always went along with a commitment to alleviation of poverty for example, he fed over 5000 people; encouraged the rich young man to meet the needs of the poor and commended Zacheaus for his acts of restitution i.e. returning money back to the poor whom he had impoverished. The reference to suffering is usually linked with struggling for justice "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" Matthew 5:10. Jesus did not die of poverty but suffered for justice. In other words there is nothing virtuous in being without adequate food, clothing, shelter and dying because of lack of these. On the other hand there are times when in the struggle for justice, one is forced to endure some of these deprivations. There needs to be distinctions made and balances put in check so that people are not being unnecessarily sacrificed .
  • Link sexuality with sin. There are many terminal diseases that are linked to human behavior for example smoking is linked to lung cancer; some forms of liver diseases are linked to over consumption of alcohol or overeating. HIV/AIDS is linked primarily to sexual intercourse and in a context where sexual issues are taboo, stigmatization of infected persons becomes a dominant response. It's a case of projection because society is unable to deal with sexuality issues. In the Christian tradition, there developed throughout history a belief that spiritual purity is attainable by those who do not practice sexual intercourse - hence the rise of celibacy as a spiritual virtue. It is ironic because in the first chapter of the Bible, God's first commandment to the first couple is to be "fruitful and multiply" (Genesis 1:28). These are the first words that God says to the couple!
    The challenge that the HIV/AIDS pandemic brings is for us to develop a comprehensive, sexually affirming theology that integrates spirituality with sexuality.
  • deals with gender relations. The story alludes to this when Phiwe is left by her husband and blamed for bringing AIDS in the home. Phiwe was a faithful wife in obedience to the teachings of the church that told her that it was her duty to be both faithful and submissive to her husband. Although the same passage in the Bible gives a stronger message to husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church, it is seldom given to men as a mandate in the same form as the submissive text is given to women. (Ephesians 5:22ff) In this way the teaching endorses and gives legitimacy to the subordination of women. In other words it is "God's will" that men rule over women. This gender inequality in the home is acted out in the church as most of the leaders and decision makers are men. So the gender inequalities in the home, in society are played out in the church. Women are caught in a double blind situation where the same church that inspires them also oppresses them. Is this contradiction part of the gospel message or is there something else?

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  • Mission of the church i.e. what is our agenda in the world. Are we just passing by on our way to heaven? Are we called to convert people and prepare them for another world? What does the kingdom of God mean for us in our context? Why is the church here? Firstly we need to recognize that how we answer this question will determine how we engage or disengage with the issues of HIV/AIDS, Gender and Poverty. If this world is "not our home" then we will disengage in issues but will be involved in humanitarian acts such as caring for the sick, taking care of orphans etc. All of these are legitimate and should be encouraged. But if we believe that we are agents of God's kingdom in this world then the justice issues that accompany HIV/AIDS will be a significant aspect of our mission in the world. Such an agenda would intentionally work towards gender equality, eradication of poverty and accessibility of medication for all who suffer etc
  • Justice issues. HIV/AIDS, gender and poverty are inextricably linked to justice. The death of Phiwe's twins as is the death of any AIDS born child is a justice issue, because medication is available to prevent this but is kept from those who need it because of poverty. The macro issues and economic practices that lie behind poverty can be traced to injustice. These issues that are part of the everyday experience of people are "man made" i.e. caused by human beings and can therefore be reversed by human beings.
    I have highlighted the above to illustrate how in ordinary life faith is a lived reality - the challenge is how to transform that lived reality into a liberative reality for its practitioners.

The Practice of Ethics especially the ethics of life and death to borrow a concept used by Philip Haille where the preciousness of human life takes priority over everything else. We need to tackle the issue of stigmatization by pointing out that the value of a person does not depend on their health status! This ascribing full humanity and dignity to all persons especially those infected with the HIV/AIDS will deal directly with the current problem of stigmatization. The ethics of life in reference to poverty is to state clearly that poverty is an enemy of life and has to be eradicated at all costs because the implication of attributing dignity to persons is not just a cognitive belief but a reality expressed in the ability of the person to live a full life. That is why democracy on an empty stomach is useless - human rights for empty stomachs is just words - we need to state that justice and human rights are intrinsically connected to the quality of life. In this way faith becomes the basis for the struggle for the eradication of poverty out of the belief in the dignity of human beings.

Sharing Experiences of Bible Studies

I mentioned the contradiction of a faith that both liberates and oppresses. One of the challenges is to realize that the act of interpreting the Bible is not a neutral one, there are biases that involve the texts that are chosen, repeated emphasized. There are some stories that have not been told that subvert the established order; there are new ways of interpreting the taken for granted stories that have the potential of creating a new point of reference. In other words the Bible itself offers resources for reinventing a faith that integrates and engages with the realities of our world. A faith that brings to the table hope and inspiration for a new world of justice, equality and quality of life for all. A faith that is born out of the questions, pain and journey of the people and empowers them to be active agents of change. A faith that makes the church part of the transformation not the problem.

Stories That Challenge

1. Numbers 27:1-9 Story of women rising up and speaking against injustice before Moses and God's response in favor of the women.
2. Story of Tamar - rape of Tamar
3. The first creation story in Genesis 1:26-30 - simultaneous creation of female and male; equal responsibility of female and male in ruling the world and God as both female and male
4. Song of Solomon - the ability of the female lover to express herself in a sexual relationship - especially significant for women who need to learn and find the vocabulary to negotiate for safer sex.

The key to doing theology is to do so in a group, to let the group engage with the text on their own terms; being free to ask questions and search for new meanings and linkages with the present. It is truly amazing what people find in the texts and the power they experience in discovering the meaning for themselves. As Jesus said "the truth will set you free".

What church groups are doing a few examples:
1. In every country there is a Council of churches that engages with social issues and also is the spokesorgan of the churches where there is a need to confront governments.
2. Most ecumenical organizations work with civil society on specific issues in order to bring about justice
3. The church has a long way to go but is slowly rising to the occasion as it realizes the tremendous area of influence it has
4. Church is active in the region and continues to work with others in development issues but there is still so much to be done especially on the various theological belief systems that I have highlighted.

Thank you.

Contact details
USA: Presbyterian United Nations Office Telephone (212) 697 4568
SOUTH AFRICA: No 5 Greenfield Road, Greenside, Johannesburg South Africa.

Nontando M. Hadebe is a theologian from South Africa who is an expert on the intersection of religion, gender and the AIDS pandemic. She is a member of the Ecumenical Women 2000+ Team and came to UN-CSW 2002 through the sponsorship of the Presbyterian United Nations Office.