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Religion, Religious Leaders Have Been Central To Health, Development Improvements In Africa

“After decades of doom-and-gloom news about AIDS in Africa, optimism is finally in the air,” Jenny Trinitapoli, an assistant professor of sociology, demography, and religious studies at Penn State University, and Alexander Weinreb, an associate professor in the department of sociology and a research associate at the Population Research Center of the University of Texas, Austin, write in a Slate opinion piece. They provide statistics of improvements in the health sector on the continent and note, “The standard narrative attributes these recent improvements to Western engagement. The heroes are the best-known acronyms in the world of AIDS (PEPFAR, UNAIDS, WHO), the Global Fund, and a host of NGOs.” They continue, “This narrative contains some important elements of truth,” but “most of the measured improvements in AIDS in Africa are actually the result of cumulative, widespread behavior change that has led to a reduction in new HIV infections. In other words, the standard narrative is wrong.”

“The narrative is wrong because it ignores local African responses to AIDS and characterizes religion and religious leaders as part of the problem,” Trinitapoli and Weinreb continue, noting, “This statement may surprise or even irritate people imagining fire-and-brimstone preachers who condemn the use of condoms, push conservative messages about sex and morality, and interpret AIDS as God’s wrath. That’s not what African religious leaders have been doing — quite the contrary. Yet their story remains untold.” They provide examples, writing, “In addition to pushing ideas about sexual morality that have roots (even if shallow ones) in religious texts, religious leaders have been promoting innovations to prevent the spread of HIV. These stories, too, have gone untold — unacknowledged by the scientific literature and Western press.” They state, “There is a more empirically accurate narrative about religion and AIDS in Africa, and we’ve described it at length in our recent book ‘Religion and AIDS in Africa.’ There is no ambiguity in the data: Religion has been central to curbing the spread of HIV in local communities across sub-Saharan Africa” (3/27).