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Professor Margaret Farley Urges Church Engagement on HIV/AIDS in Africa

By Gustav Spohn
Director of Communications
Yale Divinity School

WASHINGTON, DC —Margaret A. Farley, the Gilbert L. Stark Professor of Christian Ethics at Yale Divinity School, ventured into the world of politics and government at the end of May when she visited the nation's capital to talk about the role of religion in fighting the AIDS pandemic—particularly in Africa.

Farley delivered her message in two venues on May 25—the Congressional Caucus on Women's Issues and a YDS alumni gathering co-sponsored by International Relief and Development, Inc.—calling for an end to what she feels has been a deafening silence from the religious community on “what ways religion may have shaped beliefs, attitudes, and practices that either contribute to or prevent the spread of HIV.”

She recalled her participation at a White House Summit on World Aids Day in December 2000 where she heard a number of religious leaders talk. “Little was said,” she noted, “about the impact of religious teachings on sexual practices, the status and roles of women, and the connections among gender, race, sexuality and poverty in the context of AIDS.”

U.S. Representative Lois Capps, M.A.R. '64, from the Santa Barbara area of California and the Democratic vice chair of the Congressional Caucus on Women's Issues, said in a statement issued after the sessions, "The role of the faith community is critical to combating the AIDS epidemic, especially internationally. Religious organizations and institutions often can get better access to societies than aid groups or non-governmental organizations. And they can supplement the efforts of government programs and assistance.

“But it is essential that our efforts to fend off HIV/AIDS include the full range of tools and assistance. Our religious faith should not cut off effective means of saving lives and reducing the prevalence of HIV/AIDS."

Farley pointed to African practices characterized by gender bias, in many cases encouraged by religious traditions, as putting women in a powerless position where they have little control over avoiding infection. She cited coerced marriages; forced marital sexual relations even if they suspect their husband of carrying the AIDS virus; the “cleansing ritual” whereby widows are forced into sexual relations with relatives of deceased husbands; the belief that men can be cured of AIDS by having sexual relations with a virgin; and female circumcision.

Religious strictures against use of condoms, Farley noted, also add to the problem. Farley is a Roman Catholic, a Sister of Mercy, but the church's opposition to condoms should not extend to cases where their use can save lives, she argued.

“Religious traditions have offered words of hope in the face of disease and death, and they have been good in fact at caring for the sick and dying within their very limited resources,” said Farley. “They have not been so good at prevention of the spread of the disease.”

Over the past several years, Farley has been involved with two projects that seek to address these issues: the Yale Divinity School Women's Initiative in response to issues of gender, faith and HIV/AIDS, which is a collaboration with the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, a group of more than 500 African women theologians from Sub-Saharan Africa; and the All-Africa Conference: Sister to Sister, which involves mostly Roman Catholic women, members of religious orders and their lay co-workers.

Farley pointed out that she and her American colleagues in these endeavors view them not as “missionary” projects but as partnerships in which the primary responsibility for shaping and implementing agendas is ceded to those most affected—their African partners. “It is not we who interpret African women's experience,” she said. “It is not we who impose judgments on churches or mosques or temples in Africa ; it is not we who call for changes in personal and communal behavior.”

In fact, Farley pointed out, much of the responsibility for HIV/AIDS in the developing world must be born by countries in the West. “Many of the problematic aspects of Christian teachings (as well as those of other world religions) regarding, for example, sexuality, gender relations, family structure, and institutional roles, have been exported from what was the dominant place of the tradition to the rest of the world.”

Speaking after Farley's presentation at the alumni gathering, Arthur B. Keys Jr., M.Div. '73, president and CEO of International Relief and Development, Inc., said, “As an agency that's on the ground working in the health care field, we want to see how we can better utilize networks of faith to attack discrimination issues around HIV/AIDS.” He said that Farley, meeting for several hours earlier in the day with IRD staff, had told a number of poignant stories about discrimination against victims of AIDS in Africa.

Keys explained that his agency is currently working with some church-related hospitals in Mozambique but is ready to broaden that to include AIDS education. “The churches have a great network, both a people network but also social service system network in Mozambique, that will be very useful in confronting AIDS issues,” he said.

IRD describes itself as a private voluntary organization dedicated to improving the quality of life of people in the most economically deprived parts of the world by facilitating and supporting assistance tailored specifically to their needs. The agency works with a wide range of organizations—domestic and foreign government agencies, international organizations, international and local private voluntary organizations, and U.S. corporations—in the implementation of targeted, cost-effective relief and development programs. IRD says it has provided more than $128 million in humanitarian assistance to Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Balkans and the Newly Independent States.