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Brenda Bartelink: 'Discussing role of religion in fight against HIV and AIDS counterproductive'

24 November 2009

The debate about religion and HIV/AIDS has been narrowed down to bickering about the use of and ban on condoms. That’s counterproductive, thinks Brenda Bartelink, a theologian at the University of Groningen. ‘This discussion has led to various fallacies about the crucial and positive role of religion in the fight against HIV and AIDS. It’s extremely important to take a good look at what is actually going on.’

‘The debate about the prevention of HIV and AIDS cannot be reduced to preaching sexual abstention and marital fidelity on the one hand and the promotion of condom use on the other,’ is Bartelink’s opinion. ‘It’s about the right of people to make their own choices about how they want to protect themselves against HIV and AIDS. Continually emphasizing major ideological differences is only getting in the way of pragmatic cooperation.’

Constructive approach

One important fallacy is that religious institutions, such as the Catholic church, are only a hindrance to a constructive approach to tackling the HIV/AIDS problem. In African countries, churches and religious organizations are important providers of healthcare and education. In Tanzania, for example, they provide no less than forty percent of the total amount on offer. These organizations were thus among the first to be confronted with the suffering of people infected with HIV and with children who had lost their parents to AIDS, and with the enormous consequences for education, for example, when teachers become ill with AIDS.

Diversity of approaches

Bartelink: ‘Initially, churches and religious institutions mainly operated in the care sphere, but since the end of the 1990s, prevention has become more and more important.’ The fact that at the start of this year Pope Benedict XVI announced that using condoms would not solve the HIV/AIDS problem has not affected this. ‘In practice there is a lot more diversity to be seen in views and approaches. There are also Christian organizations that do hand out condoms. In Uganda there’s even a nun who gives sex education classes to girls in a very open way, including the use of condoms.’

Key to the community

The role that religious leaders play in communities that are often very small is also important. ‘Good contacts with local religious leaders is often the key to that community. It’s important for development organizations to involve vicars, priests and imams in their HIV/AIDS programmes.’

Sex education

A second fallacy is that religion is a hindrance in discussions about sexuality. Bartelink: ‘The differences between secular and religious organizations are far fewer than people tend to think.  Secular organizations are also cautious when trying to initiate discussions about sexuality before or outside marriage. They can only provide information to children if they are trusted by the parents, teachers and society.’

Room for cooperation

Fallacy number three mainly concerns the supposed contradictions between progressive European organizations and conservative religious institutions. In practice, there is significant room for cooperation among these parties, Bartelink has observed. ‘Various networks in the fight against HIV and AIDS bring Western, African, religious and secular organizations together.’ One example is INERELA+, a network founded by an Anglican priest who is HIV positive himself. They train other religious leaders in how to provide information about AIDS and HIV. Educaids is another network of mainly Christian-inspired organizations that work to improve sex education in schools.

Curriculum Vitae

Brenda Bartelink (1977) studied Religious Studies at the University of Groningen. She is currently working on a PhD on religion and development cooperation. She has conducted fieldwork in Uganda where she recorded discussions by Christian organizations about HIV/AIDS prevention and sex education within the framework of a case study of the Educaids network.

Current affairs lecture

On Thursday 10 December at 7.30 p.m., a current affairs lecture for World AIDS Day on ‘God, AIDS and Africa’ will be organized by the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies of the University of Groningen. The lecture is open to all. For more information please click here.

Note for the press

For more information: Brenda Bartelink

Last modified:17 January 2017 10.13 a.m.
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