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How do we protect devout women from HIV?

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‘Religion is the opium of the masses’ so the saying goes and it would seem for many Zimbabwean women, Christianity is not just a religion – it is also an escape route.

Attending church, following the routine and keeping religious observances have become a form of escapism for many women in the age of HIV as they try to apply biblical teachings to their marriages, relationships and lives at a time when hypocrisy has become a prevalent trend in most churches.

Considering that a great proportion of women are Christians, most of them adhering to Christian doctrines, it follows that the impact of HIV on our society must be interrogated within the confines of religious teachings and what church leaders are feeding their flock.

A year ago, the Roman Catholic Church’s Pope Benedict XVI provoked much outrage for re-affirming the papacy’s position on condom use – a position that has been widely accepted by other Christian groupings who all teach that fidelity within heterosexual marriage and abstinence are the best ways to stop AIDS.

Dismissed at the time as being ‘unrealistic and irrelevant’ the Pope’s position however reflects the dominant thinking within the Christian community in Zimbabwe and the response to HIV has been lukewarm, uninspired and in most instances impracticable, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, for married women the church prescribes fidelity and yet most married women have non-believing husbands who do not subscribe to the teachings of the church regarding fidelity and moral uprightness. This leaves the Christian women in the lurch as they cannot effectively apply Christian teachings to their personal lives without the cooperation, consent and sanction of their spouses.

Moreover, the Christian woman is not encouraged to assert any rights over her body because Christian teaching insists that she has no autonomy over her body, if it does not belong to the Lord then it belongs to her husband so using condoms is out of the question.

Needless to say, Christian women are not expected to negotiate for safer sex even in instances when they know their spouses have been unfaithful being advised by the well-meaning church leadership and counselors to ‘pray for their errant husband, fast and trust in the Lord’.

Whilst it is admirable for one to demonstrate their faith by praying for divine intervention to ensure that one does not contract HIV from an unfaithful partner with whom they go on to engage in unsafe sex with; how many Christian women find their way to an early grave as a result?

In many instances, pulpit sermons fail to address the specific needs, fears and concerns of congregants, of which women form the majority.

Women are not encouraged to actively take responsibility for protecting themselves from contracting HIV nor are they expected to demonstrate any inclination towards understanding and exercising their sexual reproductive rights.

In some instances, women who are married to dodgy religious leaders are often worse off than their congregants as they have to keep up appearances and often find no support system within the church.

The general assumption is that church leaders are beyond reproach, well they should be, but at times they too, succumb to the pesky desires of the flesh.

For most women, being cheated on is humiliating but for Christian women, the experience also casts aspersions on them as believers because people question where their God was when the hubby was romping around in the arms of another woman.

They blame themselves for not clocking in enough hours in the ‘prayer closet’ or for letting the devil in to their marriage by not fasting enough or some such nonsense failing to realize that they are victims and not the villains.

The problem is further compounded by the fact that Christian teachings often have a fall guy handy every time things go awry – quite simply, the devil takes all the blame and people just don’t take responsibility for their actions.

As a compromise, one may concede that they were ‘tempted’ and then ‘led astray’ none of which conveys any real conscience intent on the part of the individual to do wrong or make unwise and risky sexual choices.

By giving the sexual infraction, known as fornication or adultery in Christian discourses, a spiritual premise, i.e it’s the devil that caused it – the reasonable response for the average Christian woman is a spiritual one, that is, prayer and fasting to counter this spirit of adultery.

The very real threat posed by HIV is not addressed in all this spiritual abstractness.

It is possible that AIDS is one disease that has exposed the limitations of the church in so far as empowering and equipping women is concerned.

Some of the solutions women come up with are not only absurd they are really religious rhetoric emanating from reckless and overzealous pulpit outbursts.

Addressing delegates at a SAFAIDS workshop held to commemorate 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence in 2009, an exasperated Edinah Masiyiwa, the Executive Director of the Women’s Action Group (WAG), stated that some Christian doctrines were harming efforts to combat gender violence and curb the spread of HIV.

“We run all these awareness campaigns and yet it appears that things get worse instead of better. You talk of condomizing and then to your surprise you find grown women uttering silly statements like ‘ini handishandise condom nemurume wangu ndinongonamata kuti Mwari ngaave condom rangu’ (I don’t need to wear a condom because I just pray for God’s protection),” charged Miss Masiyiwa.

So while women ‘in the world’ may perceive themselves as being at risk of contracting HIV and take measures to protect themselves, the women in the church are exhorted to pray, fast and “confess the blood of Jesus” over themselves.

Based as much on patriarchal thinking as African culture, what real chance does Christianity have of offering women a refuge other than making them easier and willing victims of abuse as well as other forms of injustice while reminding them how ‘blessed” it is to be “meek”.

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