Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Multiple stigmas for Kenyan religious leaders with HIV

Religious leaders living with HIV in Kenya say they face a double stigma because citizens associate the virus with sin. Homosexuality creates a third stigma. But they are speaking up, publicly acknowledging their HIV status in an attempt to dispel myths and promote prevention and care


NAIROBI, Kenya (GPI)–The Rev. Margaret Lavonga, 42, says she was a respected preacher at Nairobi’s Imani Baptist Church – until she tested positive for HIV 10 years ago.

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The mother of two was expecting her third baby when the results of the HIV test shook her. She says that her faith associates HIV with sinners, and she wondered why God had allowed the virus to infect her. To make matters worse, her husband left her, accusing her of infecting him with HIV.

She says she went into denial and refused to take medication. Subsequently, she became sick and lost her baby.

“I moved from one church to the other seeking divine healing,” she says.

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Soon she found a group of religious leaders who told her that her HIV status had changed.

“I was in a group of about six individuals who had gone for prayers in one of the Pentecostal churches in the city,” she says. “After prayers, we were taken to a specific HIV testing center, and all the tests came out negative.”

She says that the leaders insisted their prayers had healed them.

“Those who had [HIV] drugs were told to burn them,” she says. “And the following Sunday, we testified in the church how we had been miraculously healed.”

But Lavonga says that the “miracle” was fleeting.

“In two weeks, however, I was admitted to hospital with acute meningitis,” she says. “I nearly died. I realized the test results had been manipulated, and the truth of the matter was that I was still HIV-positive.”

Lavonga says that a different pastor saved her by introducing her to an organization of preachers, some who were also living with HIV. The organization, Kenya Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV and AIDS, offered her a series of counseling and training sessions.

She says she gradually accepted her HIV status and started to take anti-retroviral medication. She was even inspired to take another bold step: informing her church’s leaders that she was HIV-positive and volunteering to educate the youth about the virus.

The church leaders, however, reacted in a way she had not anticipated. They barred her from all church activities, alleging that she could infect other members. Her fellow church members also isolated her. She could no longer preach to them because they considered her a condemned sinner.

“I could somehow understand their reaction,” she says. “As servants of God, we are perceived to be closer to God than other people, so they didn’t expect someone like me to be infected with the ‘sinners’ disease.’”

Lavonga says she had to move to another church that could “accommodate” her virus. She has been an evangelical preacher with Friends’ Church in Nairobi since then and is an active member of Kenya Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV and AIDS.

Religious leaders living with HIV say they face a double stigma, as their followers struggle to accept their leadership because they consider HIV a moral issue. After two decades of concerted awareness campaigns by a network of religious leaders who are publicly acknowledging their HIV status, stigma and discrimination against people living with the virus have significantly declined. But leaders say they run into a third stigma – religious intolerance of homosexuality – while implementing their campaigns. The government is working with the network to promote the prevention of and care for HIV and AIDS through a new campaign.

About 1.5 million Kenyans are living with HIV, according to the Kenya National AIDS Control Council, a government council tasked with mobilizing and coordinating resources to prevent HIV transmission and to provide care for current infections. HIV prevalence among adults in Kenya is 6.3 percent, according to UNICEF.

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