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Op-Ed

5 Ways women empowerment in churches can prevent HIV & AIDS

The fact is, gender imbalances worsen the impact of HIV and disproportionately subject women to unequal power relations, violence, discrimination and poverty.

The HIV epidemic is recognized to be gendered. In most countries half of the number of all people living with HIV (PLHIV) are women. However, in the Philippines, the gender breakdown of PLHIV has changed over time. In 1984–1990, 62% were female. From 1991 to the present, only 6% are female, although the absolute number of cases among females has been increasing. This situation is largely driven by gender inequality.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a 2015 National Council of Churches of the Philippines (NCCP) study found that mainline Protestant churches strongly support women’s empowerment, with almost all key informants supporting the equality and non-discrimination of women as safer practice for HIV and AIDS prevention.

The same study provide five ways churches can help prevent HIV and AIDS.

1. Understanding why Filipinas become vulnerable

Darlene Marquez-Caramanzana, former program secretary on Ecumenical Education and Nurture of the NCCP, added that gender imbalances worsen the impact of HIV and disproportionately subject women to unequal power relations, violence, discrimination and poverty.

“For Filipino women, negotiating condom use with their partners remain a challenge. Women also fear and experience violence and rejection from their partners or husbands, making them reluctant to get tested for HIV. Women as care providers of families also carry the burden of deaths from AIDS. We at NCCP commit to providing a space for both males and females to challenge harmful gender norms to reverse the negative impact on women and girls,” said Marquez-Caramanzana.

2. Historical push for gender equality

“We are an open-minded church that gives women equal footing with men – may lady bishop na kami (we have a lady bishop). We have more female leaders than male leaders,” said a clergy from a NCCP member church in Luzon.

The ordination of women in mainline Protestant churches in the Philippines is seen as a milestone for gender equality.  At the 20th anniversary of women ordination of Iglesia Filipina Independiente, Rosalina Rabaria, the first woman ordained a priest in 1997, said the acceptance of women as part of the clergy is a “historical victory in the struggle against biblical patriarchy [and] church hierarchical and cultural biases.”

This milestone has been a key event in improving women’s key role in their faith communities.

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The ordination of women in mainline Protestant churches in the Philippines is seen as a milestone for gender equality. This affects decision-making including in dealing with HIV.

3. Mainstreaming women’s empowerment

The NCCP study has shown that churches already have women-centric efforts, including hiring women as leaders, gender sensitivity trainings/workshops, and formation of women’s organizations within the churches. One key informant even said that to promote women’s rights within the FBO, they include discussions of Republic Act 9262 (The Anti-violence Against Women and Their Children Act of 2004) in existing programs, teaching female churchgoers that “puwede ka mubalibad sa imong asawa (you can refuse your partner’s advances).”

4. Building alliances outside the church

With this inclusion of women empowerment in existing efforts, the study showed that are at least some resources allocated by most churches on this, including all KI from Metro Manila and 63% in national offices.

To implement existing efforts, or if there is need for efforts to be developed/implemented, all key informants also said that they already formed alliances to promote women’s equality, or are willing to ally to show their support for the promotion of women’s equality as a safer practice for HIV and AIDS prevention. Some of these allies include inter-faith organizations, local government units, and women’s organizations (e.g. Gabriela and Babae Plus).

5. Providing and advocating for better care and support

The Board of Women’s Work of the United Methodist Church (BWW-UMC), an NCCP member church, already started a partnership in assisting women living with HIV with their PhilHealth insurance enrollment and other medical expenses.

For Phoebelyn Carreon, former HIV program coordinator of the BWW-UMC, there are women-specific needs that existing programs fail to respond to.

“Women living with HIV tell us that finding obstetric and gynecological services in their treatment hubs is a challenge. While antiretroviral medication is provided for free by Global Fund, health services for women are not all the time free or affordable. While we educate our church on HIV and AIDS prevention, we do what we can to raise funds for the needs of women living with HIV, who mostly are unemployed,” Carreon ended.

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