During the past 30 years, the AIDS pandemic has provided an unfortunate opportunity to follow God’s call to care for the widow and orphan. Husbands succumb to illness, leaving behind wives and children who also carry the disease. Mothers die, leaving behind children without care, and too often is the case that those children — who could have avoided in utero transmission of HIV with proper medical care — also die. Entire families are lost.
This Sunday marks the 25th anniversary of World AIDS Day. This day is not simply about wearing a red ribbon to show solidarity in the fight against AIDS. Instead, it is an opportunity to address the tough issues presented by HIV, such as how those disproportionately affected by the disease mirror society’s most marginalized populations — the poor and women — and how faith-based communities can best serve those populations.
In the book, Women, HIV, and the Church: In Search of Refuge, editors Arthur Ammann and Julie Ponsford-Holland compile expert voices to deconstruct the stigma of HIV within the church, set forth the biblical mandate to care for the sick and suffering, and define what role the church can play in providing education, protection, and refuge for those infected or at risk of infection. While Refuge speaks at length about the fallacy of a sin/sickness connection on an individual level, as well as God’s mandate to serve the widow and orphan, its primary emphasis is one of gender equality: to respond fully and compassionately to HIV, the global church must both verbally affirm gender equality as well as uphold that affirmation in practice.
In the United States, discussions of gender inequality often revolve around topics such as equal pay issues, breaking glass ceilings, and whether women can be church leaders. There is, however, a darker, more violent side to gender inequality. Within the U.S., one out of every five women will be a victim of rape or attempted rape, and rapists often go unpunished while the victims are vilified. Outside of the U.S., these numbers grow, and cultural and religious observances such as the Old Testament practice of widow inheritance place women at an even higher risk of illness.
Women everywhere are subject to violent acts for which punishment is minimal or non-existent; bear the brunt of childrearing, homemaking, and caring for the elderly; and suffer poverty in numbers far greater than men (70 percent of the world’s poor are women). Rape, sex trafficking, male dominance over sexual decisions, and political and legal injustices have, according to Ammann, turned “what was initially an infectious disease epidemic into a simultaneous and parallel epidemic of human rights abuse of women.” This is a profound statement, and the numbers bear out its truth — women now comprise approximately 60 percent of those infected by HIV. Refuge convincingly argues that to stop this ever-growing trend, valuation of women must be at the forefront of the HIV discussion.
The American church has done much in the fight against AIDS, and many denominations have issued theological statements of belief and a Christian-based approach to supporting those suffering. What is lacking, however, is a statement of definitive connection between the marginalization of women and increased rate of HIV infection, and a concentrated effort to elevate the status of women.
President of Fuller Theological Seminary Mark Labberton writes that mapping AIDS statistics against indicators of race, gender, and class will reveal how the disease has taken advantage of the ways societies and cultures fail to treat people with equality. When the biases of the church fall in line with this treatment, he writes, the church has not just failed to oppose inequality, but it also has supported what is perhaps the “most common form of human rights abuse.”
Even though the Christian community has made significant contributions to the fight against AIDS, a repeated theme in Refuge is that infected women felt they could not disclose their HIV status to their church families. Tacit acceptance of injustices as well as fear of stigmatization, shunning, blaming, and refusal of refuge led them to remain silent. Given the historical theological teachings of subservience to men and shame for things sexual, it is of little surprise that they report feeling this way.
Empathy, however, can create the safe space of refuge needed. Women, especially those whose cultures not only accept acts of gender-based violence but also encourage practices increasing those acts, can provide a deep and intimate understanding of what it’s like to live with sexual vulnerability and the corresponding fear of a sexually transmitted disease due to no fault of their own. This empathetic knowledge, even absent equal status, has already led women to serve those infected with HIV through caretaking, loving, and creating the refuge taught in James 2:16.
But relegating women’s vocational work to the margins, or forcing it underground where it lacks the full support of the church, drastically reduces its potential for success. Before the church can credibly advocate for change in legal and social structuring that places women at risk, it must first acknowledge within its own community that both genders are equally called to carry out God’s mission. Marginalizing women’s skills limits their ability to educate, protect, and love on the grand scale God intended. Certainly men care about and can speak to “women’s” issues, and certainly women care about issues other than the traditionally feminine. But without an equal place at the decision-making table, women’s needs and priorities will be inadequately articulated and correspondingly under-resourced, perpetuating the upward trend of HIV infections among women.
Jamie Calloway-Hanauer is a Berkeley-based writer, attorney, wife, and mom of four. Her writing appears in numerous publications, including Sojourners and Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics. She is a contributing writer for Christian Feminism Today and a member of the Redbud Writers Guild. Jamie blogs weekly at jamiecallowayhanauer.com, and you can follow her on Facebook or on Twitter @JamieHanauer.