Zimbabwe’s battle against Aids, which has so far claimed more than two million lives, received a major boost on Friday when more than 70 Apostolic and Zionist churches made a landmark resolution to abolish polygamy at the launch of an anti-HIV and Aids blueprint in the capital.
Polygamy has been found to fuel the spread of HIV and Aids and is a deep-rooted practice in the sects.
The 23-page policy document supports this landmark development with Scriptures from the Bible, and the abolition of polygamy will start with the leaders of the Apostolic and Zionist churches.
It quotes 1 Timothy 3:1-2, which says: “If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task. Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach.”
The policy document was produced after wide consultations since 1993 among members of the Union for the Development of Apostolic Churches in Zimbabwe Africa (UDACIZA), an umbrella body for Apostolic and Zionist churches made up of more than 70 bishops, each representing a church in the countryï¿½s 10 provinces.
The president and founder of UDACIZA, Bishop Xavier Chitanda of the Johane Masowe sect, said the umbrella body was formed after a realisation that if positive change had to be achieved among Apostolic and Zionist churches, a participatory approach had to be adopted.
UDACIZA was formed in response to the need for independent churches in Zimbabwe to address national developmental issues, eradication of ignorance, alleviation of poverty and, most importantly, the prevention of HIV and Aids among members and the nation at large.
“For some members, changing from polygamy to monogamy may threaten the whole foundation of their religion and therefore resistance is inevitable. However, we need not give up on these ones,” said Bishop Chitanda.
UDACIZA has set up programmes aimed at enhancing the Apostolic Church membersï¿½ knowledge on HIV and Aids and encourage them as much as possible to participate in programmes aimed at helping people living with the virus.
The programmes target all age groups.
The policy document denounces long-standing and deep-rooted practices within the Apostolic and Zionist churches which contribute to the spread of HIV and Aids, such as polygamy, wife inheritance, marriage of under-age girls and treatment-seeking behaviours. It also looks at issues pertaining to stigma and discrimination of those infected with HIV.
“Polygamy is common among members of the Apostolic and Zionist churches, but there is a danger that if the husband cannot satisfy the wives, they will be tempted to look for sex outside the marriage, or one
of the partners may be infected and this will increase the risk of contracting and spreading HIV.
“The church discourages polygamy, members should stick to those partners they have and not take new wives. The church will appoint marriage officers from within, to formalise marriages,” says part of the policy document.
Members intending to get married within the church will be encouraged to undergo voluntary counselling and testing and disclose results to each other.
The move, described by Government as “historic” in the fight against HIV and Aids, may see a gradual drop in the HIV prevalence rate which currently stands at 24,6 percent as the Apostolic churches constitute 6 percent of the countryï¿½s adult population.
They also command a membership of 2,5 million people countrywide.
For the past 20 years, some members of Apostolic sects have refused to acknowledge the existence of Aids, saying it is associated with prostitutes, yet most of their converts are from the “world” who join the church as a last resort hoping to get salvation from the Lord.
These converts sometimes get married as soon as they join the church, regardless of their HIV status.
Zimbabwe has the third highest HIV prevalence rate in the world after Botswana and Swaziland.
With a theme song, “Aids Hokoyo” (Aids Beware), the “Vapostori”, as they are affectionately known, launched their blueprint amid jubilation at a city hotel, saying it had become evident to all that faith healing alone cannot help the nation eradicate the HIV and Aids pandemic.
A holistic approach was needed for everyone to participate in the battle against Aids.
“They have finally seen the light!” said one Aids activist who attended the launch.
UDACIZA went into partnership with the Futures Group International and received a grant to embark on an HIV and Aids advocacy and policy programme for Apostolic churches in Zimbabwe.
Several workshops in all the 10 provinces of the country were held, the main target group being the church founders and leaders.
The workshops covered issues to do with gender empowerment and HIV and Aids. Co-ordinators were appointed in all the provinces to spread the gospel of HIV and Aids among church members.
However, UDACIZA acknowledges that a lot needs to be done to address issues that expose members to the risk of getting infected.
According to the latest ZAMPS volume eight (second quarter) results, the Apostolic faith members make up 6 percent of the countryï¿½s adult population, with 73 percent of the members living in the rural areas, with Shona being the main language.
Sixty-four percent are women, the majority of the women being in the 20 to 29 age group (the marrying age group) and only 13 percent are men in this age group.
In the 30 to 34 age group, 16 percent are women and 13 percent men.
Women do not have a say in their marriages. A husband has the liberty to have many wives in some sects regardless of his HIV status. Whether the new wife is HIV positive or not is not a matter for concern. Girls, on the other hand, are forced into marriage at very tender ages. With no formal education and in fear of punishment from their parents, they often agree and in most cases they get married to men old enough to be their fathers