Making sense of being HIV positive through religion in Papua New Guinea

We call it a virus but I want to say it's the devil inside': redemption, moral reform and relationships with God among people living with HIV in Papua New Guinea.

Kelly-Hanku A, Aggleton P, Shih P. Soc Sci Med. 2014 Aug 19;119C:106-113. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2014.08.020. [Epub ahead of print]

There is growing recognition of the importance of religion and religious beliefs as they relate to the experience of HIV, globally and in Papua New Guinea in particular. Based on 36 in-depth qualitative interviews conducted with people living with HIV receiving HIV antiretroviral therapy in 2008, this paper examines the cultural aetiology of HIV of in Papua New Guinea, the country with the highest reported burden of HIV in the Pacific. Narratives provided drew upon a largely moral framework, which viewed HIV acquisition as a consequence of moral failing and living an un-Christian life. This explanation for suffering viewed the individual as responsible for their condition in much the same way that neo-liberal biomedical discourses do. Moral reform and re-establishing a relationship with God were seen as key actions necessary to effect healing on the material body infected with HIV. Religious understandings of HIV drew upon a pre-existing cultural aetiology of dis-ease and misfortune widespread in Papua New Guinea. Understanding the centrality of Christianity to explanations of disease, and subsequently the actions necessary to bring about health, is essential in order to understand how people with HIV in receipt of antiretroviral therapies internalise biomedical perspectives and reconcile these with Christian beliefs.

Abstract access  [1]

Editor’s notes: This is an insightful paper which reveals how religion and religious belief can impact on the experience of being HIV positive. Drawing on in-depth interviews conducted as part of a mixed-methods study, the authors explored what people from Papua New Guinea (PNG) view as the cause of their illness, and how they respond to their diagnosis. They argue that whilst there has been much anthropological enquiry into religion and HIV in PNG and elsewhere, there has been little attention to the experiences of people living with HIV. In introducing the context the authors highlight the influence of Christianity on everyday life in PNG, which is localised and informed by traditional practices. The findings are deeply illuminating and reveal that the participants understood their illness within moral frameworks. Contagion was explained by “sinful” behaviour, especially promiscuity. Whilst blaming HIV for such moral transgressions has been described elsewhere, these findings reveal that these participants describe their own behaviour in such terms. Responding to their diagnosis involved returning to the church or religious conversion, which created an individual relationship with God that affected healing of the body. These practices could result in lifestyle change and a rejection of previous immoral practices such alcohol and drugs. These narratives contribute to understanding the complexity of meanings that surround HIV. In particular, people from PNG may not consider structural or socio-cultural factors to be the cause of HIV. The authors suggest that in the context of an increasing bio-medicalisation of the response to HIV, a focus on how people live with HIV is very important and needs to take into account religious belief. 

Oceania [7]
Papua New Guinea [8]
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