Christian groups say abstinence-based HIV strategies are harmful
In what was sometimes a heated debate, concerns were raised at last weekís sixteenth international AIDS conference that a prevention strategy backed by President Bush, large sections of the Catholic Church and the religious right is fuelling the HIV epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa.
Activists ñ including an increasing number from the churches ñ are warning that a policy which relies primarily on abstinence and fidelity reinforces gender inequalities which make women more vulnerable to the virus.
The session ëABC in Africa ñ What is the Evidence?í on the last full day of the global AIDS conference in Toronto was packed. ABC refers to Abstain, Be faithful and use a Condomí, a prevention programme that is often credited which decreasing the HIV infection rates in Uganda.
ABC is now seen by many, including church agencies such as Christian Aid, as being too dogmatic and simplistic. Human sexuality is too complex for neat categories, say campaigners. Is it appropriate to expect people in different stages of life to abstain and can faithfulness be a guarantee against infection if oneís partner is not faithful?
The African Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV/AIDS (ANERELA+) and its supporters, including Christian Aid, has introduced a new prevention approach called SAVE ñ Safer practices, Available medication, Voluntary counselling and testing and Empowerment.
The most passionate advocate for a shift away from ABC is Beatrice Ware. A well-known HIV activist from Uganda, Beatrice Ware abstained until marriage and remained faithful to her husband. But she is HIV positive ñ another statistic in the alarming figure which shows that a majority of women in sub-Sahara Africa have contracted the virus in marriage.
ìIf ABC did work.î she says, ìwhy is it that, after 25 years of HIV, we still seeing an increasing number of women being infected?î
ABC is unrealistic says Beatrice Ware. It assumes that women can chose to abstain and when they chose to remain faithful, that their partner will be faithful.
She explains: ìABC does not take into account that in most developing countries power resides with men. It ignores the powerlessness of women; most women cannot decide when, where and how to have sex.î
ìThis issue of gender inequality is extremely important,î concurs Dr Rachel Baggaley, the head of Christian Aidís HIV Unit. ìWe are still stuck with HIV prevention methods which rely on men making decisions.î
She continued: ìWomen will remain vulnerable as long as there are no protection methods which they control. We still do not have women in key political positions who are prepared to take on the issue of male domination.î
ìABC stigmatises HIV positive women.î adds Beatrice Ware. ìIt allows people to conclude that we are either promiscuous or unfaithful.î
Another body of research seems to have confirmed the failure of ABC. Disturbing new findings from Uganda show that, after a decline in HIV rates in the í90s, there is now a trend suggesting an increase among middle-aged men and young people.
This reinforces the need for constant vigilance and prevention messages, which are more adapted to the realities on the ground, say analysts.
ìThis research is a wake-up call for all of us.î says Dr Baggaley. ìIt highlights the need for irrefutable data; leading scientists are clearly alarmed by this surprising result in Uganda, which has always been seen as the country with a flagship HIV prevention approach. Things seem to be faltering and we need to find out why.î
[Also on Ekklesia: Religious leaders issue global challenge to HIV-AIDS stigma 20/08/06; Zimbabwean HIV+ woman helps young people Choose Life 18/08/06; Faith-based HIV work doing more harm than good, says African church leader 16/08/06; Christian Aid offers fresh approach to HIV at global AIDS gathering 14/08/06; ëLife Interruptedí: a series of photographs for Christian Aid by the award-winning photojournalist, Don McCullin; United Church of Canada issues bold action call on HIV-AIDS 11/08/06; Faith groups mobilize for global push against AIDS and HIV 08/08/06; Churches sign AIDS code; Flower power deals a fresh blow to HIV-AIDS; Cardinal calls for reduction in price of AIDS medicines; Churches face up to world AIDS pandemic; HIV+ African priest looks to AIDS-free world by 2025; Priests resist condom use in HIV-hit Tanzania; Christian-owned company produces cheap AIDS drugs; US church leader urges action not obstruction on AIDS; The Body of Christ has AIDS, say Methodists; Religious right thwarted AIDS meeting, say NGOs]