Faith-based organisations (FBOs) are receiving growing attention for their roles in addressing HIV and AIDS in southern Africa. These roles, however, are not without philosophical challenges. Yet, to date, most references to the successes or limitations of FBOs have remained the domain of theoretical and, often, ideological debate. In this context, discussions about the roles of faith and FBOs in responding to HIV and AIDS often evoke extreme positions — either advocating for or critiquing their involvement. In place of this there is a need for empirical evidence and analyses that shed light on both the challenges and opportunities of faith-based HIV-prevention programming. This article presents a critical sociological analysis of the complexities confronting one FBO in its effort to deliver an abstinence-focused HIV-prevention programme to school-going adolescents in a poor peri-urban area of South Africa. As one aspect of a larger mixed-methods evaluation, this analysis is based on 11 focus group discussions, variously held with parents, teachers, learners and programme facilitators, in an effort to determine how and why the participants perceived the programme to work. We present and analyse four sources of tension appearing within the data which relate to the programme’s faith-based orientation: (a) enthusiasm for sexual abstinence despite awareness of the structural constraints; (b) a dichotomous framing of behaviours (i.e. good versus bad); (c) mixed messages about condoms; and (d) administering faith-based programming within secular public schools. Through this analysis we aim to identify opportunities and challenges for faith-based HIV-prevention efforts more broadly. We argue that any assessment of faith-based HIV-prevention programming ought to respect and reflect its complexity as well as the complexity of the context within which it operates.
African Journal of AIDS Research (2010) 9 (2) 135–145.