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Religious participation and HIV-disclosure rationales among people living with HIV/AIDS in rural Swaziland

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Despite the cultural salience of Christianity in many parts of Africa and the expansion of antiretroviral treatment, few studies have examined experiences of religious participation among HIV-positive individuals. Correspondingly, most studies of HIV self-disclosure in sub-Saharan Africa focus primarily on disclosure to sexual partners. Addressing both concerns, the central concern of this article is HIV self-disclosure in church settings, where disclosure rationales functioned as a key heuristic to explore experience of HIV-positivity, religiosity, and church participation. Given 39.2% antenatal HIV prevalence in Swaziland — the highest in the world — and an estimated 6 500 local congregations, this article draws on a medical anthropological project in Swaziland to investigate experiences of church participation among HIV-positive individuals. The data were derived from semi-structured interviews with 28 HIV-positive individuals across three domains: 1) pre- and post-diagnosis religiosity; 2) HIV stigma and support in church settings; and 3) decisions around HIV disclosure. Field research and open-ended interviews with individuals close to people living with HIV, health personnel, and pastors provided important contextual data. A grounded theory analysis showed that HIV disclosure in church settings is a highly reflexive process, mediated by subjective religiosity, the social dynamics of church networks, and broader structural vulnerabilities. Church participation often entailed significant stigma, which negatively affected self-disclosure and help-seeking practices; however, a rhetoric of 'courage' emerged to describe individuals who voluntarily disclosed their HIV-positive status. Pastors and pastors' wives were key protagonists in disclosure strategies. A church-based defense of the meaning of personhood for people living with HIV was among the most important findings. Given that congregations in much of Africa are predominantly female, and because women comprised the majority of the sample, the study productively problematised church settings as sites of analysis where gender, poverty, and religion intersect disease epidemiology in ways that may have untapped programmatic implications.


Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.2989/AJAR.2009.

Publication date: October 1, 2009

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