Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Improving Health in Ethiopia Through Partnerships with the Church

Emily Robinson and Getahun Asres


By Emily Robinson and Getahun Asres

September 29, 2014


Religion, culture, and health are so closely tied that it is often difficult to decipher where one ends and the other begins. Strengthening Care Opportunities through Partnerships in Ethiopia (SCOPE) was founded as a response to this reality. The founders were spurred by the conviction to promote justice in all its forms, not the least of which is the right to access life-saving health care. With these things in mind, University Presbyterian Church (UPC) in Seattle, WA and the Global Health Department at the University of Washington (UW) reached out to the University of Gondar (UoG) and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC) in Gondar, Ethiopia and a partnership was born.

The prevalence of HIV in the North Gondar zone of northwest Ethiopia is twice that of the national rate. Despite access to HIV testing and treatment, participation in these services remains low. This is a problem, particularly for pregnant women; less than 1/3 access any antenatal (ANC) services at all, and only 10 percent deliver their babies with a skilled birth attendant. Out of the 14,000 HIV+ births in Ethiopia in 2010, just 34 percent received the preventative treatment (PMTCT) necessary to avoid infecting their infants with HIV.

Many factors contribute to these dismal statistics. SCOPE is working to change just one of them, with the potential for enormous impact. Many women cite “religious reasons” for not seeking care or adhering to treatment regimens. Ninety percent of the North Gondar zone’s population are Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, and despite the EOC’s official support of antenatal care (ANC), HIV testing, and antiretroviral treatment (ART), many people use holy water instead of drugs, stop their medications during times of religious fasting, and call on the name of saints rather than seek care from trained health care providers.

In this context, religious leaders are held in the highest regard, possess absolute authority, and, therefore, have a profound capacity to affect the health of their community. SCOPE aims to use this existing dynamic to improve the health of families and communities affected by HIV. Since its inception, SCOPE’s work has led to HIV testing for 800 people including the archbishop and fifty-five priests through a single testing campaign hosted by the North Gondar Diocese. SCOPE also provided training for twenty-five priests through an HIV/AIDS priest training program. Both events publically displayed the church’s support for HIV testing and treatment.  

In 2013, SCOPE’s research culminated in the Soul Fathers as Health Educators pilot project, which was implemented in the Woleka health center just outside the city of Gondar. The North Gondar Diocese chose four religious women and four priests to undergo training at the health center. They were trained in ANC, PMTCT, and the importance of HIV testing for pregnant women and their male partners. After this intensive training, priests and religious women counseled and referred pregnant women in their communities to attend health centers for testing and care. At the pilot site, the project increased the number of women seeking ANC by 20 percent. The project will be implemented in three additional health centers in the Gondar area over the next year.

Beyond the numbers, SCOPE is building bridges and fostering relationships that positively impact the health of communities in the North Gondar region. Navigating organizational, cultural, and financial challenges has certainly been part of the reality for SCOPE; however, past successes along with the enormous potential of partnering with the behavioral change agents already in place to spread health messages far outweighs these challenges. Although Christianity in Ethiopia may outwardly look quite different from its Western counterpart, all share the call of Christ to seek justice and peace in this world. In the end, SCOPE’s hope and prayer is to participate in this call.


- Emily Robinson is a SCOPE fellow from the University of Washington, where she is earning her doctorate in nursing. She will be a Family Nurse Practitioner upon completion of the degree and plans to remain involved in global health.

- Dr. Getahun Asres is a Medical Doctor and public health practitioner at the University of Gondar Hospital in Ethiopia. He is also the SCOPE program manager in Ethiopia.


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”