The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.



Ethicist discusses AIDS in Africa

Kathleen McDonnell | Thursday, November 2, 2006

While many African nations continue to see a rise in the number of HIV infected citizens, Kenya is one country that has seen a decline. But that shouldn’t be taken as a sign that the global pandemic is under control, Yale ethicist Margaret Farley said Wednesday in a lecture entitled “Gender, Faith, and Responses to HIV/AIDS in Africa.”

“It is outrunning both them and us,” Farley told students and faculty in the Law School Courtroom, referring to the people of Africa and those in the Western world trying to help.

Farley said when she asked a Kenyan woman why her nation’s numbers of HIV infected citizens are declining, the woman answered, “I think it may have been because we all already died.”

This is the reality of the situation in sub-Saharan Africa, a place where HIV has already claimed the lives of 14 million people, said Farley, who has been battling this crisis for the past six years. While some progress has been made, 28 million people in the region live with the devastating disease, she said.

Farley said her time in Africa has been a “marvelous and terrible journey.”

“[It is] difficult to imagine a more difficult situation in any time period than what we’re facing today with the AIDS pandemic,” she said.

Much of Farley’s work is done through two projects – a women’s initiative that consults with the Circle of African Women Theologians and an All-Africa Sister to Sister Conference, which works with women from 21 different countries.

“On the basis of [the women’s] experiences, let me begin by observing that we have sisters and brothers everywhere … and lives are destructed, families are being destroyed.”

Farley focused on the role women can – and should – play in controlling the disease. Women are at a greater risk for infection and death, she said. For every 10 men infected, 13 women are infected.

“Whole generations have been wiped out. In some villages it is possible to find no one over the age of 14,” Farley said. “Women bear a disproportionate burden. … But without power, women who could, and I believe do, hold the key to stopping the pandemic are shut out.”

Farley said many women are “blatantly excluded” from positions of economic, social, and political power, allowing the patterns of sexism and submission to perpetuate.

Much of women’s powerlessness comes when sex is demanded on religious or cultural grounds, she said. Women are often coerced into marriages and into having unprotected sex, Farley said, even if the partner is potentially infected with HIV.

“Women may have to stay in relationships in fear of losing economic support, and women with AIDS are more likely to be stigmatized,” she said.

The current solutions are not enough to control the “overwhelming problem,” Farley said, offering ideas for effective responses to the pandemic garnered from her own experiences in Africa.

Farley said women breaking the silence and bringing the issues to the forefront of people’s minds is key.

She also said a working partnership with African women is vital because “it is not we who interpret a woman’s experience or call for a change of cultural or social behavior – the Africans shouldn’t be expected to come into our agenda.”

A common goal and common hope is also crucial for relations, she said.

Farley said there is also a cross-cultural aspect of her work, as it is not possible to transplant beliefs and practices wholesale from one culture to the next.

“We can stand in solidarity with those of the culture who may criticize a certain aspect of it, as long as we look to our own culture with the same critical eyes,” Farley said.

Action is required based on our understanding of the world church, she said.

“We are all equal shares in the one life of the Church,” Farley said, “called to bear the burdens of one another. It is often said in this regard that Christ has AIDS.”