Religion and HIV
by Abbie Van Sickle
There is a growing momentum for churches to become involved in the fight
against HIV/AIDS. Essentially they have no choice as increasing numbers
congregants or their loved ones die and nowadays, according to one
pastor, "you see more people at the cemeteries than at the soccer
Debbie Mathew, director of the AIDS Foundation of South Africa; "I think
the churches are becoming more comfortable because it's such a common
thing now. You also find now they're having to bury so many people
who've died of AIDS in their own congregations."
month, members of the South African Council of Churches pledged to work
diligently to stop the spread of the disease at a national conference
hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation last month.
Faith-based organisations are also starting to meet regularly under the
auspices of the University of Natal's HIV/AIDS Network to discuss how
they are going to address HIV/AIDS.
"When you compare our faith-based efforts with those of other African
countries that have been more vocal and taken a more proactive approach,
I think you can say we've been slow to catch on with faith-based groups
and prevention," says Professor Suzanne Leclerc-Madlala, an
anthropologist at the University of Natal.
"There is a real misunderstanding with the idea of the ABC [abstain, be
faithful, condomise] message," she said. "It seems to be seen as an
'either or' campaign - either you promote condoms or abstinence as the
answer. That approach derails us right away. That simply limits our
options. We can use both."
Although not all faith organisations are combining those prevention
options, several organisations in KwaZulu-Natal are working to combat
the spread of HIV, including evangelical churches, the Shembe Church and
the Catholic Church.
Using methods ranging from traditional ceremonies to medical clinics to
training community members to educate others, the organisations are
taking the first steps in faith-based prevention efforts.
lot of (faith-based organizations) have come a long way in understanding
they can preach abstinence but that a lot of women in South Africa are
not in a position to make informed and healthy lifestyle decisions,"
"People might try and deny it, but our youth are sexually active," she
said. "There are many people, particularly men, who have more than one
sexual partner. This is not going to go away over night."
of the churches that has pledged to work to prevent the spread of HIV is
the evangelical Durban Christian Centre.
a corridor, deep within the church, is the Help our People Everywhere
(HOPE) Centre Clinic. Smelling faintly of disinfectant, the small
waiting room is filled with people. A young woman sits, holding a
sleeping infant on her lap. An older, tired-looking woman tries to
entertain a toddler with a shiny green bag of Simba chips. The clinic
offers free HIV test, information about her AIDS medication and
people who come to us need someone to speak life to them rather than
condemning them," said Pastor Vusi Dube, who runs the centre with his
wife, Taki, a medical doctor. "They know they'll not be cured of HIV,
they just need to be loved."
Taki Dube exudes efficiency. Brimming with enthusiasm, she rails off a
list of the centre's accomplishments. Started in 2001, the clinic has a
staff of eight nurses, four doctors, a social worker and 15 counselors
who serve on a rotating schedule six days a week. Working as volunteers,
they provide free HIV testing, counseling, primary care, hospice care,
orphan placement, education, morality promotion and support groups from
says the centre's strong focus on prevention also sets it apart from
most other faith organizations. "Most churches are focusing on
home-based care and not prevention and support groups," Taki said.
"Every organization must focus on where they can do the most good. Many
people who come to us are not dead yet; they're not dying. They're
living with HIV and we try to help."
services are free," adds Vusi. "It's accessible to everyone. We're
meeting with communities from around the city. We see ourselves as a
place between the hospital and home for people who often have nowhere to
Starting as a feeding scheme for the city's homeless, the HOPE Centre
now runs a four-part program aimed at uplifting people in all aspects of
Every day more than 300 people get free meals and about 20 people get
tested for HIV. Counsellors are preparing to launch a third HIV support
groups. Already offering programmes for the employed and the unemployed,
the third group will focus on couples where at least one partner is
make people realize that being HIV positive does not mean that God
condemns you," says Mmangaliso Zondi, the centre's administrative
of the main tenets of the programme is abstinence, and Zondi says
Uganda's successful abstinence campaign show abstinence is an effective
way to curb the epidemic.
don't stop people from using condoms," Zondi said, pointing to a box of
condoms sitting on a filing cabinet in the office. "But we don't
encourage their use. We hope many people will choose abstinence. It's
100 percent effective in prevention."
raise awareness of the benefits of abstinence, the church sponsored an
Abstinence Walk from Port Shepstone to Pietermaritzburg, last year.
Another powerful faith-based organisation in KwaZulu-Natal, the Church
of the Nazareth, or the Shembe Church, has also taken up HIV/AIDS - but
advocates traditonal practices to prevent HIV infection.
Abstinence is the only answer, and church members are forbidden to use
are preventing AIDS through the Bible," said Enoch Mthembu, a committee
member for the Shembe Church. "People must behave with morality at all
times. There should be no difference between your behaviour at a shebeen
or at a church."
Although the church has no formal clinics or support groups, Mthembu
says the church encourages abstinence by educating members about the
risks of sex and virginity testing.
Abstinence among men is regulated by traditions that require the men to
pay lobola after sleeping with a woman. Among women, virginity testing,
which is performed by older women each September, is the most effective
technique, he said.
Mthembu said he believes working within traditional tribal structures
and faith are the most effective ways to prevent the spread of the
"Government information is not enough," he said. "Love Life and other
campaigns don't really reach people like they should."
Although Mthembu accuses other religious leaders of stigmatising those
with HIV/AIDS, he says unmarried church members who are infected with
HIV are "an embarrassment".
Married people who become HIV infected "create a scandal because that
means they've been sexually active outside of their marriage", Mthembu
churches were doing the right things, we wouldn't have this problem with
HIV," he says. "Where do people get this disease? It all comes back to
moral issues and how people behave.
"Now, when you go to the cemeteries, you see more people there than at
the soccer stadiums," Mthembu said. "It didn't used to be like this."
While the Shembe Church is just beginning to address the AIDS pandemic,
the Catholic Church has been a major force for several years in coping
with post-infection care, says Liz Towell.
Active in the HIV/AIDS field in the area around Durban for nearly 20
years, Towell manages Sinosizo, or "We Care," a programme that works to
provide community-based HIV/AIDS relief to 10 townships in the Durban
"We're not reaching everyone, not by any means," she said. "But we're
making a difference and it's always a 'choose life' strategy for the
"Choose Life" boils down to a strict abstinence, no-condom approach to
prevention. Focusing on the alleviation of poverty and malnutrition is
also crucial in order to stop the spread of the disease, Towell said.
"Poverty, unemployment, AIDS, the three are always linked," she said.
You have to address all of these in order to make an impact."
Sinosizo is sponsored by the Catholic Archdiocese of Durban AIDS Care
Commission, and based in offices in Chatsworth and Amanzimtoti. Active
since 1987, its mission is to empower communities with the skills to
care for those with HIV and knowledge to prevent infection. Since 1995,
the programme has offered home-based care, and currently serves about 1
Towell says she is relieved that the church has kept its policy on
abstinence. South Africa's attempts to use condoms as an effective
prevention have failed, she says, whereas abstinence is the safe, easily
understood way to stop the spread of HIV.
However, she accepts that the strategy isn't always easy to put into
action as many female clients depend on men for their food and shelter
and these men don't always agreed to abstain.
among the church's volunteers, the strategy doesn't always work. There's
a massive turnover rate for volunteers because many don't practice what
just went to a funeral yesterday for a woman who'd been a volunteer here
for 5 years," Towell says. "She got HIV and she died."
Despite the daily sadness that she faces, Towell, like the workers at
the HOPE Centre and in the Shembe Church, remains hopeful the
faith-based projects can help stem the tide of HIV by working from the
fighting AIDS, it's vital to look at the development of the community as
a whole," says Towell. "If some place has been an informal settlement
for 30 years, we've got to take a holistic view to stop the spread of