The experience of African women theologians has been a crucial element in helping faith communities respond to the challenge of HIV and AIDS in Africa, says the coordinator of an ecumenical network on the pandemic on the continent.
"Many of the issues we are addressing today, the key drivers of HIV such as violence, the cultural aspects, the misinterpretation of scriptures, have all been part of the discussions of African women theologians," said the Rev Dr Nyambura Njoroge, coordinator of the Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiative in Africa (EHAIA).
Njoroge was interviewed in Vienna, where she was attending the 18th International AIDS Conference. Njoroge has been EHAIA coordinator for the World Council of Churches (WCC) since 2007.
EHAIA also has five regional coordinators and two theological consultants based throughout Africa. It was launched in 2002 to enable churches in Africa to access information, training and resources to help them deal with HIV and AIDS in their communities. In its first four years of operation it reached 9000 participants.
"Our goal is to have HIV-competent churches and theological institutions," said 53-year-old Njoroge, a Kenyan who is an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa.
Njoroge first joined the WCC in 1999 to coordinate its programme on theological education. In this role she quickly became aware of the role played by theological education in training HIV-competent theologians and pastors.
This led to a series of consultations that was followed by the creation of EHAIA.
"Looking back I see that my ministry has been shaped by the dynamics of HIV, especially in the African context," said Njoroge. "As an African it has a personal angle to it. I stopped counting the number of people in the extended family we have lost."
Njoroge, who has a PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary on "African Theology and Christian Social Ethics", also brought to EHAIA her experience in the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, a network inaugurated in 1989 in Accra, Ghana.
"It was very obvious that the most affected on the continent were women, both as care providers and because we are on the receiving end," said Njoroge. "The majority of those who are HIV-positive are women. So we couldn’t ignore asking why there is a gender imbalance."
As African women theologians, "we have wrestled with these issues," said Njoroge, "and now we had to bring them to workshops with pastors who have not been socialised around these issues."
Still, she noted, advocacy on HIV is not always easy for church leaders because the dynamics and complexity of the pandemic, and the need, "to talk about sexuality with all of its diversity".
That is one reason, she said, why theological education is so important, "so that when you come to the parish you are not scared of the issues."
HIV, gender and homosexuality
In Vienna, Njoroge was a speaker at a multi-faith pre-conference held in advance of the AIDS conference. She also spoke at a workshop during the main conference on "Men having sex with men and their needs in low- and middle-income countries".
"We have gone through stages. When we started, it was the issue of gender," she said. "We have come a long way. I think it is accepted that this is an issue we must deal with … Now homosexuality has become part of the issues, and this is not an area we can avoid."
In recent months, however, some church leaders in countries including Uganda and Malawi have supported criminal penalties being applied against homosexuals. HIV campaigners warn this can mean people at risk from the disease being driven underground.
Njoroge acknowledged a "disconnect" with the fact that in many parts of Africa, it is churches that are at the forefront of providing health services and care for people with HIV.
"This is an area where we will never agree, we will not have one perspective," she said. "But how do we get someone to go for testing if they are in hiding because of what people are saying about them?"
Njoroge says "safe spaces" are needed to enable faith leaders to discuss such issues with those who are directly affected. "What we have learned is that we need to have people among us who are HIV-positive, and we need to have people among us who are men who have sex with men."
At the same time, Njoroge suggested more research on how traditional African communities dealt with these issues. "Is there something we can learn?"
She said she takes inspiration from how the WCC first responded to HIV in the 1980s, becoming one of the first international organisations to do so.
Under the leadership of its then General Secretary, Emilio Castro, the WCC elaborated guidelines for responding to AIDS including the affirmation of "the right to medical and pastoral care regardless of socio-economic status, race, sex, sexual orientation or sexual relationship".
Castro "knew it wasn’t going to be an easy ride. But he didn’t run away from it," said Njoroge. An attitude that is still needed: "Do we have the courage to step out and take the lead?"
(c) Stephen Brown is managing editor of Ecumenical News International. He was part of the Ecumenical Media Team at the International AIDS Conference.