Early struggles in developing a response to the HIV and AIDS pandemic were remembered by African women church leaders who gathered here June 23 to celebrate more than 30 years of their Christian ministry in the churches of their region.
The event brought together more than 100 women church leaders from Kenya, Zambia, Malawi, Swaziland, Ghana, Uganda, Eritrea, Rwanda, Tanzania, Cameroon and the Netherlands at the St. Andrews Church (Presbyterian Church of East Africa).
The event highlighted how the history of ordination of women in Africa coincides with the early diagnosis of HIV and AIDS in the 1980s. Efforts of African women theologians were honored for challenging the stigma attached to the virus and supporting communities affected by HIV and AIDS.
At the event, Dr Rose Wafula, national manager for the Kenyan health ministry of the Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission, stressed that women are more vulnerable than men to HIV and AIDS and therefore should be at the forefront in the fight against the pandemic.
“This is what makes leadership of women in the churches critical,” she said.
“Women leading the churches must accompany people affected by HIV. They must mobilize communities in raising awareness. In our churches we need to reach out to all families and everyone around us to join efforts by governments, non-governmental organizations and the United Nations to bring HIV and AIDS infections to zero, as well as mother to child transmission of the virus,” said Wafula.
Jedidah Wathata Maina shared her personal experiences of being an HIV positive person faced with the disability of blindness since 2005 as a result of the virus.
“Those of us who live in rural areas are forgotten,” she said.
Maina described how accepting her HIV positive status was complicated by many difficulties. She faced discrimination from her community and even from some of her family members.
Maina has been on antiretroviral drugs for over fourteen years now. She has made herself available to educate people about HIV and help eliminate the stigma associated with HIV and AIDS, especially among people with disability. “People know so little about HIV and AIDS,” she said.
“HIV is spreading because it is surrounded by silence. We must realize that it is possible for some of us to be HIV positive. It is important for us to go for HIV testing and seek medical treatment we might need,” added Maina.
The Rev. Nyambura Njoroge, coordinator of the Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiative in Africa (EHAIA) of the World Council of Churches (WCC) said that since the 1990s HIV has become a motivating factor for women theologians in Africa to “dig deeper into their Bible, culture, traditions and the lives of the people they serve”.
“Today we feel we have gained a voice rooted in theological grounds. Churches are waking up to the issue of HIV and AIDS. Now we must recognize that HIV is not only a medical condition, it is a social issue, an issue of justice and peace and a theological issue. It is also an issue of language, with which we pray and preach,” she said.
The event in Nairobi was held as part of a conference hosted by the St. Paul’s University chapter of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians. The sponsors of the event included the WCC’s EHAIA, the ICCO (interchurch cooperative for development cooperation) Kerk in Actie in the Netherlands and the St. Augustine Foundation in the United Kingdom.