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Women Challenge Faith Leaders Over Slow Pace in AIDS Response Call for Critical Review of Religious Teachings
NAIROBI, Kenya/GENEVA, 18 July 2007 (LWI) * A session of a recent international gathering on HIV and AIDS expressed concern that 25 years after the first known HIV case, religious leaders and institutions were taking too long to change, thus slowing down efforts to effectively respond to the AIDS pandemic.
A pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Rev. Andrena Ingram, St Michael Lutheran Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, said she had encountered stigma and discrimination, even as a member of the faith leadership.
"I entered the candidacy process, my HIV status, which I disclosed openly, was questioned - rather, my ability to keep up with academics - before 'AIDS dementia' set in. This concern was raised by an individual in the church office. I do not believe it was said maliciously, but rather, out of ignorance," said Ingram at the panel discussion on "Religion and HIV and AIDS," during the July 2007 Young Women Christian Association (YWCA) International Women's Summit on women's leadership on HIV and AIDS in Nairobi, Kenya.
Ingram said she had made public her status, believing this way would help eradicate "illnesses" she listed as discrimination, silence, fear and shame.
"Unfortunately, these 'illnesses and diseases' are sometimes found within the very institution which proclaims the message of God's love," she said. "[They] affect us, because they have manifested themselves in people and institutions around us. Sadly, the church has in some early instances chosen to focus on this diseases as a subject of moral deliberation - focusing on this disease as exploring the lifestyle of those infected."
The session, with panelists from Africa, Asia, Latin and North America explored the role of religion in preventing HIV among women and girls, while examining how religious groups could provide stronger leadership in preventing rising infection rates among young people. They also discussed the impact of religious leaders' messages on women, and put forward strategies for balancing religious views with womenâs sexual and reproductive health and rights, as well as an analysis of the theological and non-denominational challenges associated with ecumenical responses.
"In our countries, religion is very important for us [but] the impact is not always positive," stated Dr Mabel Bianco, president of the Foundation for Studies and Research on Women in Argentina. She said it was a problem when religious leaders talk about gender issues, with little regard for the women's position on women's rights and sexual matters.
"Religious leaders are not comfortable with criticizing their own faith or their own priests," said Ms Anne-Marie Helland, special advisor for social and political rights at Norwegian Church Aid, who moderated the session. She added that these tensions were often not helpful for many persons living with HIV.
Ms Phumzile Mabizela of the African Network of Religious Leaders living with or personally affected by HIV or AIDS (ANARELA+) said, "The challenge is for us to look critically at our teachings. Faith organizations all over the world have been strong in provision of care, support, treatment and capacity building. However, I think we have not reflected critically on our theologies and our religious teachings."
ANARELA+ was currently adopting a more holistic strategy called SAVE - S - safer practices; A - access and availability to treatment and nutrition; V - voluntary testing and counseling; and E - empowerment, she said. The much talked about "ABC" approach, (Abstinence, Be faithful and Condom use) did not work for women," explained Mabizela, an elder and candidate for ministry in the Uniting Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa.
For Mabizela, HIV has made women's resolve stronger, and they want to be seen as individuals who have a meaningful contribution to make, not as victims waiting to be rescued. "We continue searching for ways in which women, especially those living with HIV can continue to challenge their religious leaderships," she added. (655 words)
(Reported for LWI by Kenyan journalist Fredrick Nzwili.)
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