Religion and HIV/AIDS Prevention in Nigeria

Article excerpt

The spread of the human immunodeficiency virus in Africa has reached epic proportions, and the controversy over the use of condoms as a preventive measure has also escalated. In South Africa, 5.7 million of the nation's 50 million people are infected with HIV. In 2001, 5.8 percent of Nigeria's 140 million were infected with the virus. (1) In dealing with this problem, which has been described as the twenty-first plague, some faith-based organizations have denounced condom use based on their sexual ethical teachings, while government and other secular agencies that pursue preventive programs endorse it based on its proven efficacy. The issues involved in this controversy will be the focus of this article. These issues include the following topics: religious beliefs, marital fidelity, abstinence, and condom use. The purpose of this study is to examine how religious teachings and policies affect the implementation of preventive programs of governments and civil organizations that advocate the use of condoms as an essential ingredient of a comprehensive prevention program. Furthermore, the study hopes to provide some insight that can be helpful in fostering more effective collaboration between faith-based organizations on the one hand, and governments and social organizations on the other.

The roots of controversy

In the Western world, the thinking about AIDS as a death sentence has changed. This is as a result of the development of treatments that enable persons infected with the virus to operate normally and to live out their life span. Hence, HIV/AIDS is treated as a manageable chronic disease. In Africa, however, the "death sentence" picture about HIV/AIDS continues to dominate. In a country such as Nigeria, there is still limited availability of preventive and treatment programs. Furthermore, there has been an insignificant drop in the number of deaths from AIDS. The euphemisms for HIV/AIDS denoting wasting, disappearance, and death are still used, and their images continue to fuel sentiments of fear and confusion and encourage stigmatization of victims.

To change this death-sentence image in Africa, the spread of the virus must be contained and death from AIDS reduced. Government and social organizations involved in preventive and treatment programs advocate the use of condoms with the hope that especially youth can practice safe sex. On the contrary, some religious groups that are also involved in preventive programs condemn the use of condoms. According to religious views, especially in Catholicism, the condom is a form of contraception and so its use is viewed as immoral. (2) Second, the availability of condoms is viewed as a contributing factor in early initiation of sex for young people as well as encouragement of extramarital sex.

The position taken by some religious groups with respect to condom use has been seen as subversive, myopic, and unrealistic. In a recent study involving four hundred and forty-three people, mostly young university students, half of them agree that the Catholic Church's teaching on contraceptives and condom use limits the effectiveness of preventing the spread of HIV. (3) An eminent Nigerian medical practitioner had expressed grave concerns on what amounted to a negative impact of religion:

  The steps being taken by all the governments of West Africa are
  basically along the ones that medical practice normally follows:
  prevention, treatments and rehabilitation. In terms of prevention, we
  are trying to change the sexual practices of the people. You have
  heard of ABC. ABC is a rational approach. A: Abstinence, B: Being
  faithful to one's partner and, of course, C: use of condoms in
  situations where those two are not possible. It's unfortunate that
  some people have brought religion into the whole thing. We are
  talking about the life and the death of people and we need to be
  practical about it and actually accept that the three approaches are
  important. …