Ecumenical response to HIV and sexual violence in Angola
With the Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiative in Africa (EHAIA) of the World Council of Churches (WCC), Rev. Josefina Ilda Cussinja Sandemba has been engaged in developing responses to the HIV pandemic, and to sexual as well as gender based violence in Angola.
Sandemba, an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Congregational Church in Angola, leads a congregation of 1500 members in the town of Viana. She has been associated with the Council of Christian Churches in Angola (CICA) with their women’s desk, and currently works closely with the Lusophone regional office of EHAIA based in Luanda, Angola.
In the following interview, Sandemba shares her reflections on how churches are responding to the issues of the HIV pandemic in Angola and the region.
How is the HIV pandemic affecting communities in your local surroundings?
In our local situations, there are two aspects related to the spread of HIV infections that I would like to underline, which make communities vulnerable.
The first aspect is related to the access to health care. Our maternity wards in hospitals are always full of women who are dealing with miscarriages and abortions (mostly because of domestic violence), injuries from sexual violence and surgical interventions for young mothers.
There are few hospitals with professional workers and equipment. The rest are local health centres that lack good facilities and professional expertise. This is a common situation in rural areas. This is why infections among the patients occur often.
Another aspect I would like to highlight is behavioural. In local communities young girls start their sexual activities quite early. Parents also have little ability to send their children to schools and educate them. In this situation, communication between parents and young adults is very limited. In some cases, older men also use young women for sexual activities in exchange for a little money. These are the factors that add to the threat of HIV.
Who do you think is most vulnerable to HIV?
Those most vulnerable to HIV infections are women and youth. In many cases it is the young girls who get abused by older men who are usually married and have partners.
How do you evaluate responses of the churches to the HIV pandemic in Angola?
The churches have the most audible voice for the communities. However, sometimes the gap remains between the cultural experiences of women and the preaching of the churches. When the churches do not take women’s voices into account when it comes to counseling about safe sex in marriages, this results in an increase of the HIV and AIDS threat. Also, it is important for churches to support HIV testing initiatives for young people before marriages take place.
Tell us a bit more about your engagement with EHAIA?
I work closely with EHAIA to organize workshops for women’s training. In my country, we are witnessing many cases of sexual and gender based violence. It is clear to us that the key aspect is the struggle against the HIV pandemic and its relation to sexual and gender based violence.
The contextual Bible study methodology promoted by EHAIA is very suitable to help women and pastors to be open and talk about their problems, seeking to overcome trauma. At EHAIA, we use the Contextual Bible Study Manual on Gender-Based Violence with the communities. The role of EHAIA is to influence the leaders’ vision on how they deal with the HIV pandemic. We encourage them to talk openly about sex and sexuality, and its impact on the health of the people.
If the churches really want to play a constructive role in this situation, they need to train pastors and church leaders in counseling, focusing on trauma healing, for instance, and to have integrated services among counselors, medical professionals, psychologists, lawyers and other experts in the field.
We work together with other EHAIA staff in sub-Saharan Africa and in Geneva, the WCC headquarters. We also collaborate with associations of people living with HIV, theological institutions and the sub-regional fellowship of councils of churches in Southern Africa.
Marcelo Schneider (*)
------------------------------------------------(*) Dr Marcelo Schneider works as WCC’s communication liaison for Latin America based in Porto Alegre, Brazil