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Influence of the Church in Bringing About Change
African Church Information Service
March 24, 2003
Posted to the web March 25, 2003
Erika Von Wietersheim
Statistics of HIV/AIDS prevalence in Namibia are not impressive. The figures are worrying. However, a holistic approach to fighting the pandemic may reverse the trend, if the ongoing efforts are maintained or intensified. Led by the Lutheran Church in the country, religious organisations have assumed a major role in this endeavour, reports Erika von Wietersheim.
"I am urging every Lutheran congregation in Namibia to form its own HIV/AIDS committee during the year 2003. This is the only way we can implement our programme to combat the AIDS pandemic."
These words were spoken recently by Bishop Dr Zephania Kameeta of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Republic of Namibia (ELCRN).
The call was directed at more than 880,000 members of the Lutheran Church, who make up almost 50 percent of the country's population.
With an HIV prevalence rate of 22.3 percent among its population, and with over 80,000 orphaned children, Namibia is one of the countries in southern Africa greatly affected by the AIDS pandemic, alongside Botswana, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.
In some regions, one out of three pregnant women is HIV-positive.
Average life expectancy in the country may fall from 61 to 40 years by 2005 because of HIV/AIDS.
"Ignorance, stigmatisation and discrimination have long characterised the attitude of both church and government toward HIV-positive persons and AIDS patients," says Rev Angela Veii, Co-ordinator of Lutheran Unity in Namibia.
Efforts are nevertheless being made to remedy the situation. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Namibia (ELCIN) has been running an AIDS Action Programme since December 2000.
Its counterpart, Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Republic of Namibia (ELCRN) followed suit in July 2001 with Evangelical Lutheran Church AIDS Programme (ELCAP) in July 2001.
The current emphasis of these programmes is training in home-based care. About 130 laypersons have completed the basic training course.
"Only by recruiting laypersons and volunteers can the programme be sustainable and remain independent of outside help," says Veii, who also co-ordinates AIDS programmes of Lutheran churches in Namibia.
A major goal of the programmes this year is to build a network of village AIDS committees, among the 165 congregations in the country.
Using a holistic approach, the AIDS groups will work in three areas, namely, home-based care, youth education, and practical and spiritual care for the increasing number of orphaned children.
Veii observes: "HIV/AIDS work only makes sense when you tackle the problem from all sides. It is only in this way that congregations can become effective as 'healing communities' at the local level - even if we have to do it without money and medicines."
The holistic approach is also important because HIV/AIDS education has to go together with developing new morals about sexual relationships.
"Sexuality is still a taboo as a topic," points out Rev. Hosea Iyambo, Coordinator of the ELCIN's AIDS Action for the Western Diocese.
He explains that women are still in an inferior position in families.
They are often exposed to domestic violence from their husbands, who refuse to use effective methods of prevention.
According to him, providing active care for AIDS patients and orphans requires creation of new social networks.
Veii agrees, stressing, "Programmes which work directly, holistically and locally to combat the AIDS pandemic through personal involvement with AIDS patients and the healing influence of the church community, can bring about transformation."
A significant factor in the success of AIDS work is ecumenical co-operation. Lutheran churches in Namibia are founding members of Church Alliance for Orphans (CAFO), launched in November 2002.
CAFO unites 11 church organisations in promoting practical care and trauma healing for orphaned children. "We would like to create a society in Namibia in which orphans too, feel lifted up and supported," said Rev. Dr Henry Platt, at the launching ceremony. He is the National Co-ordinator of CAFO.
He said since the traditional African extended family could no longer accommodate all the orphans in its social welfare network, there were increasing numbers of children living alone, caring for younger siblings, hungry, and unable to attend school.
The difficulties in combating HIV/AIDS are immense. Despite generous material support from the United Evangelical Mission and the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Mission, there are not enough funds or trained personnel. There is also no adequate administrative infrastructure.
In rural areas, there is still great lack of awareness about the dangers of infection, since there are neither televisions nor newspapers to use in education campaigns. People rely only on the radio.
However, not all is bad. The Minister for Health and Social Welfare, Dr Libertine Amathila, speaking last December after releasing 2002 AIDS report for Namibia, pointed out some regions where the rate of new infections had stabilised or even decreased.
Six of the larger towns in Namibia reported decreases by 3 to 4 percent for the last 12 months. This shows, she noted, "our work is bearing fruit."
She said this had been made possible by combined education campaigns carried out in towns by the government and civil society groups in the past few years.
Along with schools, the minister considered churches the most important actors in the civil society. To this, Veii adds: "In Africa, participation of churches and religious leaders strengthens credibility and success of government campaigns."
She continues: "More than 90 percent of Namibians are church members.
Even in the most remote parts of the country, you can find a church and worship services. So we take our work seriously and work together at all levels."