Improving Women and Children's Health through Ethiopian Religious Leaders

 {Photo credit: Genaye Eshetu/MSH.}Aba Gebrekidan visiting Miliat and her family.Photo credit: Genaye Eshetu/MSH.

“How can a person go into the sea, and come out without getting wet?” asks Likebirihanat Aba Gebrekidan Gebregiorgis during a training of religious leaders in August 2012, held in Tigray, Ethiopia. His question refers to his belief that medical treatment and divine intervention together can ensure a healthy child is born to HIV-positive parents.

Gebrekidan was one of the religious leaders trained by the Ethiopian Interfaith Forum for Development Dialogue and Action (EIFDDA), under support of the USAID Ethiopia Network for HIV/AIDS Treatment, Care and Support (ENHAT-CS) program, an initiative funded by the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), led by Management Sciences for Health (MSH).

EIFDDA’s training of religious leaders covers HIV-related subjects, including spiritual support to people living with HIV, and inclusion of HIV messages into religious teaching; including addressing stigma and discrimination and gender-based violence; as well as the importance of accessing health center services for HIV care and treatment; prevention of mother-to-child transmission; and maternal, newborn, and child health.

After the training, Gebrekidan was determined to pass on his knowledge and make a difference by using his leadership position as head of the Orthodox Church in Southeast Zone, Tigray.

Within 7 months of his training, Gebrekidan had given 10 trainings to priests from different districts of the zone, each with 100 to 350 participants. After the trainings, encouraged by Gebrekidan, the priests have gone out and taught what they learned to others. In Orthodox Church custom, each priest has a weekly responsibility to visit and reach out to 10-20 people to counsel and teach them individually. In addition, the priests spread what they learned in church services and various social gatherings.

Miliat Gebraye, 28, is one of the beneficiaries of Gebrekidan’s teaching. Miliat delivered her first four children in her house in the traditional way. But after a visit to her house by Gebrekidan, Miliat, who was pregnant with her fifth child at the time, decided to deliver at her nearby health center, stating, “The priest taught me that I have to go to the health center and follow up my pregnancy treatment in there.”

Since ENHAT-CS started in October 2011, the program has supported EIFDDA to train and support over 400 religious leaders like Gebrekidan.