Academic journal article Population

AIDS and Religious Life in Malawi: Rethinking How Population Dynamics Shape Culture

Academic journal article Population

AIDS and Religious Life in Malawi: Rethinking How Population Dynamics Shape Culture

Article excerpt

Studies of religion since the onset of AIDS in Africa (around 1990) provide evidence of an increased emphasis on sexual behaviour in religious spaces across the region. HIV prevention has become central to religious life, with multiple studies confirming the active role of religious leaders in promoting AIDS-related behaviour change (Green, 2003; Krakauer and Newbery, 2007; Pfeiffer, 2004). In Mozambique, Agadjanian and Menjívar (2008) identify mainline Christian congregations as spaces that facilitate informal communication about AIDS and related issues. In rural Malawi in 2004, over 70% of religious leaders were preaching explicitly about AIDS on a regular basis and a similar proportion reported preaching regularly about sexual morality (Trinitapoli, 2011).

In contrast to these abundant estimates of quantity, the nature of religious messages about sex and AIDS has been less fully explored. In sub-Saharan Africa, religious messages about marriage and family life pre-date AIDS, but the epidemic may have altered the ways in which these topics are engaged from religious perspectives. Given the high levels of uncertainty due to AIDS and other longstanding problems like food shortages, political instability, and spiritual insecurity, contemporary sub-Saharan Africa provides a clear example of "unsettled times" - historical periods in which ritual practice, doctrine, and ideological commitments can take on heightened salience. Swidler (1986) argues that during unsettled (or less-settled) times, the desire to enforce a new ethos can drive ideology, reflecting on the example of how Calvin reformulated Protestant doctrine in order to advance a new ethos of austerity and self-control. Extending this logic to the case of Africa's AIDS epidemic, we expect to find doctrine being organized by an identifiable ethos that aims to address some of the challenges the epidemic has brought about with regard to family life.

To examine how AIDS factors into religious teachings about family life, a case study approach is used, examining religious leaders in rural Malawi during 2004 and 2005 - the height of the country's generalized AIDS epidemic. The first section of this article shows how religious leaders integrate HIV and AIDS into religious teachings on family life to illustrate how religion has been responsive to this demographic event. The second section extends recent research showing that Malawians increasingly use divorce as a strategy to prevent HIV infection and explores how religious ideas are invoked both to justify and to oppose divorce in the Malawian context. Arguing that religious teachings on marriage and divorce are the result of a combination of individual agency and institutional action, the third section examines some implications for advancing the study of religion (and culture more broadly) within demography.

I. Religion, family life, and divorce in Malawi

Marriage in southern Africa has long been described as a "fluid" arrangement (Bledsoe and Cohen, 1993; Lesthaeghe, 1989). Historically, marriage and divorce have been social arrangements rather than legal ones, governed by customary law (Chimango, 1977; Wanda, 1988). Recognized marriages can take a variety of forms: civil, customary (chinkhoswe), religious, "by repute" or de facto; but civil marriages are uncommon. A household survey from 2000 estimated that the vast majority of marriages (approximately 77%) are chinkhoswe marriages (i.e. officiated by marriage mediators known as ankhoswe), with about 23% of couples having religiously officiated marriages (Malawi Law Commission, 2006).

As with marriage, divorce has been almost entirely within the purview of local, traditional courts rather than the formal legal system (Wanda, 1988). Divorce is not new in Malawi; divorce rates have been high (i.e. between one-half and one-third of marriages) since the 1940s at least (Mitchell 1956). However, many scholars agree that the rules surrounding marriage and divorce have changed in response to AIDS. …

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