Religious Leaders Help Fight HIV/AIDS in Africa

written by: Patrick Gallagher
posted in: 2011, Zimbabwe

July 1, 2011

We’ve continued to delve into the analysis of our survey data over the last two weeks.  We’ve found a few interesting and important trends, which I’ll mention in a later post.

Today, though, I want to tell you about the role of religious leaders in the fight against HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa.  Please note that these are solely my opinions, based on my work experience in southern Africa.

If you haven’t heard about the scale of the AIDS crisis in this part of the world, you can readily find frightening statistics with minimal Googling.  The disease is devastating people of every tribe, class, education level, gender, and age.  Some African nations, with the financial backing of the west, have stemmed the tide, but others, for various reasons, haven’t even made a dent.

Global health experts largely agree that the real fight, unsurprisingly, is won at the local level.  This includes engaging leaders of religious communities, as they often possess the moral standing and charisma (loquaciousness?!) to influence large groups of fellow worshipers, for better or for worse.

Because of this influence, it is extremely valuable to have religious leaders as allies when fighting HIV/AIDS, and very dangerous to have them as adversaries.  As allies, they will spread your message of health and hope to their community, encourage them to get tested for HIV, take measures to prevent its spread (condom use, male circumcision, monogamy, etc.), care for the sick, and work against the stigmatization of infected individuals.  Worshippers will often take this practical advice to heart, leaning on fellow congregants to follow the religious leader’s advice.  Religious leaders serve as a “force multiplier”, distributing your message deeper, farther, and more effectively than most other leaders can.

On the other hand, if a religious leader is not sympathetic to your cause, he or she might actively preach against it, especially in the case of HIV/AIDS, a controversial and lethal disease, which touches on sexual, social, political, religious, economic, and health issues, among others.  The leader might pronounce the infected or those who care for them as undesirable and untouchable, or declare proven prevention methods as tools of the immoral and promiscuous.  These proclamations often resonate with a community that respects and admires the leader, and looks to him or her for moral guidance.

In this part of the world, when it comes to HIV/AIDS, coopting religious leaders can make or break your campaign’s message.  So, then, how does one get them on board?  Of course, old fashioned respect and deference will get you some face time to explain your message and its impact on the health of that leader’s community.  Appearing at his or her place of worship for service and generously tithing certainly will move things along.  But, often, it depends on the already formed opinions on health, HIV/AIDS, sex, and other issues, which will determine the extent of the leader’s buy-in.  If that leader has deep-rooted, conservative beliefs on those issues, then your time is perhaps better spent elsewhere, so as not to remind him of those beliefs.


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