BURLINGTON, Vt. — Kenya’s faith sector has a mixed track record when it comes to dealing openly with issues related to sexuality and HIV, but with nearly half of the country’s health care provided by faith-based organizations, religious leaders occupy a pivotal role as conduits of information and influence.
In a country where the vast majority of the population ascribes to a religious affiliation — 97%, according to a demographic health survey conducted in 2014 — faith leaders have the authority to reduce stigma against people living with HIV or to increase it, to disseminate accurate information about prevention and treatment or to obscure it, and to reach marginalized populations with care or to further their alienation.
People are more likely to listen to and trust a faith leader than an NGO that they may not be familiar with, according to Umar Rashid of Muslim Hands.
“To reduce stigma, we need religious leaders leading by example,” said the Rev. Jane Ng'ang'a, national coordinator of INERELA+ Kenya, speaking at the 23rd International AIDS Conference.
“I cannot be a faith leader who is stigmatizing and telling people on the other hand that you should not stigmatize,” she added.
In an effort to bring faith leaders into the fight for evidence-based information and HIV interventions in Kenya — which saw 46,000 new infections in 2018 — the Kenya National AIDS Control Council has drawn on religious texts to convince churches, mosques, and other congregations to combine science and faith to inform the messages they deliver to their communities about the disease.
“Yes, we do tell our members that they need to use a condom as a medical tool for prevention.”— The Rev. Stephen Ndoria, Presbyterian Church of East Africa
In 2019, NACC published a handbook on HIV and health messages for use by religious leaders, which employs input from Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Baha’i theologians to find religious lessons that can advance goals related to combating HIV. The handbook provides an overview of Kenya’s current HIV epidemic, corrects common misconceptions, and then finds “references” in core religious texts that could be interpreted to support a variety of goals consistent with Kenya’s AIDS strategies and policies.
The goal is to “support religious leaders to Mainstream HIV messages into sermons and religious activities,” the handbook reads.
For example, the handbook encourages congregations to seek out accurate knowledge about HIV, including by getting tested for the virus. Christian faith leaders might draw on a line from Hosea 4:6, which reads, “My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge,” while Muslims might look to the Quran’s 39:9, which reads, “Are those who have knowledge and those who have no knowledge alike? Only the men of understanding are mindful.”
When it comes to messages around prevention, the handbook is unmistakably pro-abstinence. Kenya’s churches have historically opposed condom use and distribution.
“Flee the evil desires of youth, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart,” reads a line from the Bible that is cited in the handbook.
Quoting former Baha’i faith leader Shoghi Effendi, it instructs: “Before marriage absolutely chaste, after marriage absolutely faithful to one’s chosen companion. Faithful in all sexual acts, faithful in word and in deed.”
The handbook also takes a more conservative view of the role of preexposure prophylaxis, stating on a list of “facts” that PrEP, “if administered appropriately will reduce the risk of acquiring HIV infection among discordant married couples” — those in which one partner is living with HIV and the other is HIV-negative.
Asked during the AIDS conference whether the church in Kenya promotes condom use, other forms of contraceptives, and PrEP, the Rev. Stephen Ndoria from the Presbyterian Church of East Africa described a distinction between “promotion” and “correct information.”
“Where I come from, and most of us come from, we agree that a condom is a medical tool, and it’s also a form of a contraceptive, so yes, we do tell our members that they need to use a condom as a medical tool for prevention,” Ndoria said, noting that both condoms and PrEP are necessary for “discordant couples.”
“We look at life from the perspective that human beings are prone to fail. … Because we may not be able to police what people do with their bodies and what young people will do with information we give them, then we must be willing to tell them that if they will not abstain, then they must either use a condom, use PrEP, and they must not get pregnant until they are ready for it,” he said.
Devex, with support from our partner GHR Foundation, is exploring the intersection between faith and development. Visit the Focus on: Faith and Development page for more. Disclaimer: The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of GHR Foundation.