March 05, 2002

African and US women theologians respond to AIDS

Fifty women from fourteen countries and diverse faith traditions gathered February 28-March 3 at Yale University Divinity School to address the AIDS pandemic in Africa. Twenty-three of the participants were African women theologians or church workers from twelve African nations. They came from Botswana, Ghana, South Africa, Uganda, Mozambique, Eritrea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, Namibia, Kenya, Cameroon, and Rwanda. The African women joined with women theologians from the United States and Canada in order to probe the connections between gender and faith in an attempt to find new responses to HIV/AIDS in Africa and around the world. The conference participants represented multiple strands within Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, and Jewish traditions.

Musimbi Kanyoro, General Secretary of the World YWCA, said on behalf of the African women participants, we are "women speaking authoritatively as leaders in our communities with responsibilities covering local, regional, and international spheres. We represent professions and institutions, movements or individual initiatives. We are theologians by training and theologians by faith and practice. This is a table rich in variety for Africa is big and the U.S. is big, and women always have a big agenda."

The work of the conference began with the shared conviction that religious traditions and their institutions can exert a major influence on the spread or prevention of the AIDS pandemic. "Faith communities are either part of the problem or part of the remedy," said Margaret Farley, Yale Divinity School ethics professor and director of the conference. This was a women's conference in recognition of the fact that as AIDS continues to burn its way across Africa, women are at increasing and disproportionate risk of infection and death. They are also increasingly at the center of community, district, and national responses.

The conference was sponsored by Yale University Divinity School and by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). It was initiated following the White House Summit for World AIDS day, December, 2000. That Summit conference called together religious leaders from nations facing massive increases in the spread of HIV/AIDS, particularly African nations. A Summit participant from Yale Divinity School challenged the world religious leaders to address questions of sexuality, the status of women, and poverty in relation to HIV/AIDS. As a follow-up to the Summit, USAID initiated a program which it called "Communities Organized in Response to the HIV/AIDS Epidemic" (CORE). Part of this program included a focus on women's responses. USAID continued to recognize the importance of faith traditions in this regard, so that it began to collaborate with women faculty of Yale Divinity School on the "Project on Gender, Faith, and Responses to HIV/AIDS in Africa." This past weekend's conference was a major result of the work of this Project.

Conference participants noted that the beliefs and practices of many religious institutions often contribute to women's risk of infection. Religious attitudes and beliefs, they said, can present obstacles to women's effective action in their own communities. They can also serve to silence the voices of women in response. Historical interpretations of faith traditions embedded in culture and controlled by sometimes unwise religious leaders can become distortions of faith. They can, the participants argued, thereby promote harm rather than good. On the other hand, there was agreement that religious institutions and their faith practices often also inform, inspire, and sustain women as leaders, theologians, policy makers, clinicians, and care-givers.

The women at the conference spoke of the need to critique, retrieve, and transform some aspects of religious traditions, resisting distortions and inadequacies that contribute to sickness and death. Discussion of major theological understandings surrounding sexuality, power, gender relations, and conflict combined with concrete ethical concerns such as the availability and acceptability of condoms. The participants also addressed issues of social justice in international access to medical care.

While the conference was an invitational working conference, it included a session open to the public on Saturday morning. This session provided a wider discussion of issues with various representatives of local HIV/AIDS organizations and the medical professions. For example, Dean Michael Merson of Yale's Department of Epidemiology and Public Health spoke of the work that is being done at Yale in response to the worldwide AIDS epidemic. He also answered questions from the African women participants about the problems and possibilities of working with faith traditions. Elsie Cofield, founder and director of AIDS Interfaith Network in New Haven shared her experience over decades of working on the national front in response to AIDS.

Participants spent the final sessions of the conference determining how to sustain the theological and practical work they had begun. A major goal of the conference was to find ways to support and sustain African women in their own contexts. Plans have been laid for continued collaboration at a future conference to be sponsored in Ethiopia by the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians. Work will also continue on shared research, strategies, and resources. Musimbi Kanyora reflected the energy of the conference when she said, "The collective power of women has the possibility to reach out and touch the lives of those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. We do not accept that HIV/AIDS is our fate."

Further questions regarding this conference can be addressed to Margaret A. Farley, Yale Divinity School, 409 Prospect St., New Haven, CT 06511, USA (203-432-5355 or 203-488-0692; fax: 203-488-0692)

* Margaret Farley is a Sister of Mercy from the Detroit Regional Community, USA

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