“We are tired of HIV, but HIV is not yet tired of us”: Ongoing Reflections on Religion and HIV

At the occasion of World Aids Day (1 December), Ezra Chitando – theological consultant for the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiative and Advocacy (EHAIA) – writes about the ongoing challenge of HIV and AIDS, not only for public health programmes but also for scholars of religion.

By Ezra Chitando

There is fatigue around HIV in most parts of the world. The epidemic has been around since the mid-1980s in most contexts. In the eyes of some, particularly decision makers in the global North, the availability of anti-retroviral therapy has made the epidemic a manageable one (although many people continue to die from AIDS). For many people, including those who have made financial investments in addressing HIV, this is now time to move on to the next global challenge. In many organisations, HIV has been “mainstreamed,” that is, it has been included in everything else to the extent that it is no longer visible!

Sadly, although the world is tired of HIV, HIV itself is not yet tired of wreaking havoc on humanity. The UNAIDS Factsheet for World AIDS Day 2018 indicates that in 2017, 940 000 people died from AIDS-related illness. Further, 1.8 million people became infected with HIV. In particular, infections are rising among adolescents and youth. Young women and girls continue to be disproportionately affected by HIV. Factors that drive the epidemic, including poverty, gender inequality, stigma and discrimination, poor health infrastructure, skewed global economic patterns, migrant labour and others remain firmly in place. Years of activism have not transformed the world into a sea of justice and equality. Heteronormativity continues to influence programmatic interventions and non-normative sexualities remain marginalised in responses to HIV.

In the midst of all these factors, research and writing on religion and HIV continues to be undertaken. After the initial years of paralysis, the field has expanded considerably. The area of religion and treatment adherence has attracted considerable reflection. It is emerging that, despite the availability of antiretroviral therapy, a significant number of people living with HIV are defaulting on treatment. They would have been told to abandon their medication as a “sign of faith.” This theme is attracting a number of scholars and activists. It confirms the capacity of religion to pose as a barrier in the overall response to HIV, even as it has served as a viable mobiliser in many instances.

The theme of religion and gender in the context of HIV remains well subscribed. The Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians (the Circle) has led the way in this field. The challenges that they have continued to draw attention to, particularly the appropriation and deployment of religion and culture to maintain women in a subordinate position, remain intact. These have been complemented by reflections on the need to mobilise men in the response to HIV. Therefore, the gender agenda continues to be relevant in the context of HIV.

Sexual and gender-based violence, as well as trauma, has generated considerable interest among scholars. Whereas the initial outcry against sexual and gender-based violence by the Circle had been dismissed as alarmist by some male scholars, it has become clear that there is an ongoing need to probe how religion, culture and gender socialisation increase women’s vulnerability in the wake of HIV. Emerging scholars have examined the extent to which religious ideologies have been (ab)used to justify sexual and gender-based violence, thereby increasing vulnerability to HIV.

The emerging trend where HIV infection is increasing among adolescents has also generated interest amongst some scholars. This has led to nascent theological/religious studies reflections on the status of children, adolescents and youth in families and society. Further, there are initiatives that seek to understand how children, adolescent and youth can lead the response to HIV in religion and society. Given the sheer demographic significance of youth, particularly in Africa, there is potential for this theme to grow in influence.

Although the number of postgraduate students writing on religion and HIV has decreased, the theme continues to invite further reflections. Whereas critics might call for freshness, it is clear that most of the factors that drive the epidemic have not been challenged in decisive ways. Networks of theological/religious studies institutions that address HIV might no longer be as active due to funding challenges and the movement of scholar-activists, but studies on religion and HIV continue to be undertaken.

In closing, there may now be need to undertake more second order reflections on the interface between religion and HIV. What have we learnt about the role of religion in the response to HIV? When is religion given to pathological performance and prophetic practice, where the former expresses the negative impact of religion and the later captures the positive role of religion in society? How can the relationship between religion and HIV inform reflections on religion and development, for example? What are some of the lessons learnt from the work on religion and development for curriculum transformation? These and other questions confirm that studies on religion and HIV can have relevance beyond themselves in many ways.

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Photo credit: Kevin Harber, 2010 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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