Sex, religion and power

Opinions on how best to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS often clash along liberal and religious, conservative lines. But RUG religious studies PhD candidate Brenda Bartelink showed that the division is not quite that simple: power also plays an important role.

Educaids Network, a platform where organisations from the Netherlands and Uganda cooperated to introduce sex education programmes in schools in Uganda, was the focal point of Bartelink’s research.

Many organisations and schools in Uganda are still grappling with what is the most effective manner for providing sex education and raising HIV/AIDS awareness. But when religious organisations dismiss condom and contraceptive use or speak out against homosexuality, it comes across as conservative and makes sex education one-sided.

Liberal sexual moral

But it’s more complicated than that, even in the Netherlands: ‘Christian organisations from the Netherlands introduced sexuality education programmes that were seen as neutral and based on biomedical evidence, yet a liberal sexual moral was introduced alongside it’, says Bartelink.

Bartelink has a background in the academic study of religion – and nursing. When she worked as a gender and development advisor at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, she developed a strong interest in the connections between development, religion, and social change.

In the post-9/11 period, Bartelink says religion has increasingly been seen as a violent obstacle to social change and development. Yet simultaneously, discussions on the positive contributions of religion to development were emerging. ‘This intrigued me’, says Bartelink.


She was motivated to research the results of the two sides of the debate, given religion’s position firmly at the heart of the development agenda and the role of faith-based organisations’ decades of work, in some cases tracing back to historic missionary movements.

But her research revealed that power is just as important as culture and religion. ‘I wanted to explore the power relations in this field’, says Bartelink. ‘I decided to research Christian development organisations and, in particular, how organisations from the Netherlands and Uganda deal with contestations around the prevention of HIV/AIDS.’


In practice, sex education in Ugandan schools allows little room for moral, religious and cultural reflections on HIV/AIDS and sexuality education, according to Bartelink. A liberal approach was sometimes frowned upon by the churches or larger organisations the Ugandan organisations were part of, so staffers from both nations worried about how local groups would respond. ‘Many also feared losing the trust of these communities when introducing messages on sexuality that were different from their cultural understanding’, adds Bartelink.

The debate was further fuelled by the inevitable talk of financing. In order for the organisations in Uganda to have access to funds from Dutch organisations, they had to accept their approach to sexuality education to a large extent. But their own religious and moral arguments sometimes limited their willingness to be flexible: some groups stated they did not want to discuss homosexuality, for example.

While such an argument can easily be seen as a sign of religious conservatism, Bartelink argues that when it came to the Educaids Network, that resistance revealed the lack of equality between counterparts driven by different cultures and access to power. Analysing those cultural dynamics is vital to understanding how religion and development are related, she says.


Just because a development organisation is characterised as Christian does not automatically mean it is conservative, either. ‘In the Dutch organisations in particular, there was a mixture of conservative Christian and liberal discourse’, says Bartelink.

While her work was focused on Uganda, her findings could be beneficial to debates on sexuality and sexual health in the Netherlands, too. ‘Various policymakers, including our current Minister for Development and Foreign Trade, have suggested that the Netherlands must take the lead on improving sexual health in the rest of the world’ due to its history of sexual liberalisation, says Bartelink.

Bartelink’s conclusion is that NGOs and policymakers who want to engage with religious leaders and communities must create space in policy-making – and provide funding – for alternative ways to improve sexual health and education. She also hopes to work on improving interaction among researchers, policymakers and practitioners. ‘I believe academic research – the anthropological research of religion and society in particular – can make important contributions to our understanding of contemporary social challenges.’