Can Christian Ethics Take Down Stigma and Bias Against Women With HIV?

As a panelist on "HIV/AIDS, Gender and Theo/Ethical Responsibility" at the 2015 annual meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics in Chicago, Nontando Hadebe, Ph.D., found herself deviating from her planned presentation on sub-Saharan Africa.

She needed to talk about unpublished research she'd seen. It showed how black lesbians in South Africa living with HIV -- who often are infected with HIV through rape -- are being denied pastoral help from churches claiming to be open to all people with the virus.

For queer women, lesbians and others who exist outside of female gender norms in South Africa, a common and violent mode of HIV transmission is corrective rape, also known as correctional rape. The South African activist group Lead SA defines corrective rape as "the rape of lesbians by men in order to [attempt to] turn them heterosexual, to make them 'act' more in conformity with gender stereotypes or to punish them for their homosexuality." Lead SA quotes the nonprofit organization Luleki Sizwe saying that "more than 10 gay women a week are raped or gang-raped in Cape Town alone."

Lesbians living with HIV, explained Hadebe, are "often dismissed as an impossibility." The violence and their experiences are ignored by social services and powerful "churches and theologians because of the imposed 'unethical' space they are deemed to be living in which disqualifies them from the resources of solidarity, ethical justice and compassionate ministry."

Hadebe was led to wonder, "Can gender analysis function as a liberating tool for all without exclusion of any?"

Jessica Whitbread (on left) and Martha Tholanah of International Community of Women Living With HIV/AIDS (ICW)
Jessica Whitbread (on left) and Martha Tholanah of International Community of Women Living With HIV/AIDS (ICW)

Jessica Whitbread of the International Community of Women Living With HIV/AIDS (ICW) says stigma and discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation present a barrier to services and justice globally, even when sexual orientation is protected under the law.

"There is a difference between something being illegal by the books yet being morally criminalized within a society. Stigma is hard to claw back against."

Whitbread says the ICW sees women (whether transgender or cisgender, straight or queer) excluded from accessing health care services, and pushed out of community and friendship circles.

"Who wants to live in isolation?" she asks. "Stress is an indicator to poor health. If a core sense of being is not validated and seen as unethical it is really hard to exist in this world."

Worldwide, women currently account for over 50% of individuals living with HIV. According to the South African National HIV Survey 2012, an estimated 12.2% of the South African population (6.4 million persons) are living with HIV, a 1.6% increase from 2008, with over half of those living with HIV being women. But Whitbread notes that "gender and gender based violence -- such as correctional rape and the forced and coerced sterilization of women living with HIV -- is almost never talked about within the larger HIV response."

So what can the Society of Christian Ethics bring to the struggle for justice, and against stigma and discrimination in the global HIV epidemic? Rooted in thinking through ideas of "right relatedness" through the lens of Christianity, the Society of Christian Ethics reached its height of influence in the U.S. in 1948 when Reinhold Niebuhr -- one of the discipline's most famous practitioners -- graced the cover of Time magazine.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Christian ethicists began thinking through economics, the environment, race, gender and sexuality alongside the Christian teachings. Scholar-activists pushed the discipline forward, asserting that ethics must be formed through proactive support of the courageous witness found in the lives of the most marginalized, the naming and dismantling of oppressive structures and ongoing work for justice.

Dr. Traci West speaking in Chicago
Dr. Traci West speaking in Chicago

One such leading scholar-activist is Traci West. On the panel with Hadebe, West was speaking to the Western religious context when she stated that raising awareness is no longer enough. U.S. scholars and activists "need to draw attention to the ways in which Christian politics of gender and sexuality help to foster the spread of HIV and AIDS."

For her, from the Society of Christian Ethics there "must be some direct, specific, attention to how violence, abuse, and coercion can combine with Christian politics of sexuality to induce shame and blame and deceit that undermines effective prevention strategies as well as support for persons who are infected with and affected by HIV."

Teresa Delgado, Ph.D., associate professor of religious studies at Iona College, put together the panel at the conference. She agrees there is a role for the Society of Christian Ethics to play in the ongoing HIV movement, specifically as it relates to women.

"As global citizens," she says, "we must continue to address the status of women in every culture and society, noting the specific ways in which the HIV/AIDS epidemic is allowed to proliferate when the cultural expectations around the role of women are not interrogated in both intimate and global terms."

Women in Rwanda (Credit: Donald E. Messer)
Women in Rwanda
Donald E. Messer

It is not up to individuals living with HIV to be less themselves. It is up to institutions and organizations -- like churches -- to be better at meeting the needs of those they say that they serve. One example of such an organization is the Mbwirandumva Initiative in Kigali, Rwanda, founded by Beatrice Mukansinga. The group does outreach trauma counseling for women, understanding that trauma can come from an HIV diagnosis as well as how the news is received by others.

In response to her own questions, Hadebe sees the trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost as a model that works. Difference is shared; and burdens, rewards and duties are distributed among three parts.

In the early days of the AIDS crisis, activists fought to have the opportunistic infections frequently seen in women included in the U.S. definition of AIDS, because women who did not have the AIDS diagnosis could be excluded from lifesaving services, benefits and research protocols -- resulting in unneeded suffering and premature death.

The work for lifesaving inclusion continues, including in faith communities and by Christian ethicists. What would it mean if a lesbian living with HIV was not deemed as impossible, unethical or unworthy of service, but rather was held in the same regard that the Holy Ghost holds for the Father and the Son?

Canadian born Theodore Kerr is a Brooklyn-based writer and organizer. He was the programs manager at Visual AIDS; currently, Kerr is doing graduate work at Union Theological Seminary.