In the African continent, 99.5 per cent of people claim a ‘religious connection’: there are 2 million congregations of different faiths and more than half of these are Christian. In some churches, every single member is involved in caring for orphans and vulnerable children.
With proper resourcing the potential of churches is huge:
- Prevention: churches have unparalleled influence and a long reach into remote areas. They have captive audiences and wide communication networks for spreading messages about AIDS.
Care: church volunteers could move beyond offering counselling and moral support, to more proactive roles such as, for example, ensuring children in affected families can stay at school.
Treatment: overstretched healthcare systems could delegate some testing and treatment services to community groups, if they were given proper training. One key low-cost area of treatment in which churches could get involved is in stopping HIV being transmitted from mother to child in pregnancy or early infancy – a preventable tragedy in which up to 600,000 children are infected each year.
Crucially, churches are in a unique position to dispel the prejudice and gender inequality on which HIV and AIDS feed – provided they recognise the part they often play in reinforcing stigma and discrimination.
- Many churches still associate HIV and AIDS with promiscuity, which fuels stigma and makes people reluctant to take the HIV test.
- Too often church leaders fail to talk openly about sex and so miss the opportunity to change attitudes and behaviour.
- Many churches ignore or even oppose the use of condoms in preventing HIV transmission, despite evidence that thousands of women who are faithful to their husbands are infected within marriage.
International agencies and governments are beginning to acknowledge the work of ‘faith-based organisations’ and want to engage them further in HIV prevention work. Their potential is vast. For example, there are some 250,000 church congregations in the AIDS belt of East and Southern Africa alone – more than enough to support the region’s 12 million orphans. Many churches are keen to do more and be more effective – but need help to upgrade their own responses.