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Africa finds an effective weapon against AIDS: religion

Published April 1, 2013 4:14 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

AIDS is declining in sub-Saharan Africa, thanks largely to religious leaders and their sermons about abstinence and fidelity.

That seems counterintuitive to some Westerners, who presume that churches oppose the distribution of condoms and that ministers cite the HIV epidemic as evidence of God's wrath.

Such Western observers often believe that any progress in preventing or managing the devastating illness must have come exclusively from the use of medicine with the help of American and European nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

Not so, researchers Jenny Trinitapoli and Alexander Weinreb write in Slate, an online magazine.

"As a single class of people, local religious leaders sit at the very top of our list of who should receive credit for the behavior changes that have curbed the spread of HIV in Africa," Trinitapoli and Weinreb write.

And these African leaders' messages about AIDS came well before the Western groups got involved.

"For nearly two decades, religious leaders of various stripes in Malawi — a religiously diverse country with high HIV prevalence — have been offering practical messages about how to resist the temptation of beautiful women, how to prevent jealousies in polygynous households, how to discern whether a boyfriend or girlfriend will be a faithful spouse in the long run, and why withholding sex within marriage might be risky for both partners," the researchers write. "These messages have mattered. In congregations where AIDS and sexual mortality are discussed regularly, unmarried people are more likely to report being abstinent and married individuals faithful to their spouses."

Sermons about "abstinence and faithfulness have been pragmatic and effective," they write. "They have reduced the spread of HIV in countless African communities that have been unreached by resources from the Global Fund and its counterparts."

Why hasn't this story been told? ask Trinitapoli and Weinreb, authors of the book, "Religion and AIDS in Africa."

"The West is still in the thrall of the outdated assumption," they write, "that societies need to jettison old superstitions [religion in particular] in order to modernize."

That does not fit their experience.

Africa is "a place, like any other, in which people converse about and respond to AIDS, famine, war, and plain-old daily hardships in contested and complex ways," Trinitapoli and Weinreb write. "On the world's most religious continent, people use religious ideas, language and organizations to address problems, big and small."

Peggy Fletcher Stack