Faith And Religion Can Reduce AIDS-related Stigma

For thirty years now, HIV has continued to spread across all levels of our societies, killing 30 million people and infecting another 30 million. In order to realize the goal of the three zeroes - Zero New Infections, Zero AIDS Related Deaths, and Zero Discrimination and Stigma it is imperative to tackle the last one to achieve the first two. This message was brought out clearly during the 10th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (10th ICAAP) held in Busan, Korea.

A declaration by the participants of the interfaith pre-conference to the 10th ICAAP 2011, affirmed their unconditional support and conviction that faith must be made more visible and active in the response to HIV and to reverse the effects of this global pandemic. They pledged spiritual support and action based on the belief that love, compassion, forgiveness and mercy cannot be separated from people living with HIV (PLHIV). The challenges arising out of HIV need to be addressed not with anger, violence and hate, but with a deep faith and a deeper love.

Those who are living and grappling with the disease, very often feel that worse than having the disease is the way others treat them. Stigma and discrimination are based primarily on misinformation, fear and moral prejudice and fuelled by ignorance, injustice, denial and hate. Instead of encouraging stigma and discrimination, religious teachers can become a force to mitigate them.

Different faith leaders and other delegates at the Congress recommended using the holistic prevention strategy called SAVE (S-Safer Practices, A-Access to Treatment, V-Voluntary Counselling and Testing and E-Empowerment). Faith based Advocacy, Networking and Support for key affected and vulnerable populations (such as People living with HIV, MSMs, injecting drug users,  transgenders, sex workers, migrants, women, and  children) can go a long way in removing stigma.

Members of the conference heard with great concern the vulnerabilities experienced by people from key populations in relation to HIV. This led to a greater determination in eradicating stigma and discrimination and creating safe spaces for education and awareness on sexuality and   gender, with a   commitment to continue dialogue with key populations, so that all challenges can be overcome and oppressive systems of power within and outside of religious communities would be challenged.

The faith group participants at the pre-conference meet organized by Asia Pacific Coalition On Male Sexual Health (APCOM) felt that there are huge misconceptions about gender and sexuality amongst religious people. Religion and culture is intertwined, and culture often promotes what is supported by religion. The conflict between religion and sexuality weighs heavily on the shoulders of key affected population in the field of HIV/AIDS, especially MSMs and transgenders. Religious arguments often make social acceptance of gender and sexual orientation difficult. Muslim scholars seems to be more acceptable to transgender issues but less amenable to MSMs. Despite its negative connotations for them, religion still remains important in the lives of many sexually diverse individuals. So it becomes all the more important to become familiar with the alternative interpretations of the scriptures that are sensitive to gender issues.

It was felt that progressive religious scholars should be engaged in forums that discuss sexuality issues and that empowerment and training programmes for religious heads should be held which will help them to reconcile religion with sexuality. On the promise of anonymity, one delegate from India said that she knew for a fact that some Hindu religious leaders were themselves living with HIV/AIDS but were forbidden by their congregation members to seek medical help.

At a satellite session organized by the Centre for the Church and Global AIDS, Dr Donald Messer felt that religious leaders can create hope over fear (HIV is a virus that can be treated); promote acceptance and not moral prejudice (homophobia, not homosexuality, is a choice); emphasize upon compassion not condemnation (people living with HIV are more sinned against than sinners, as they are denied access to basic needs of life); demonstrate leadership and not silence (just a warm hug/handshake will break the barriers).

Mr Mahesh Perera of Sri Lanka lamented the failure of the Christian churches in his country in combating stigma and prejudices related with HIV/AIDS. He hoped that the church preachers would pay heed to the voices of young people living with HIV/AIDS, and affirm in their sermons that all people are created in the image of God and hence should be accepted.

Rev Dr Youngsook Kang of the United Methodist Church, USA, reiterated that unless stigma and discrimination is removed from the lives of people living with HIV, we will not be able to achieve the desired goals. Referring to a story from the Bible about a Bent Woman who sought help from Jesus Christ, she likened her to the women affected with HIV/AIDS who are denied to look up and lead a dignified life, and remain bent under the pressures of social discrimination and prejudices. Religious leaders will have to join hands with others to lift them up from the position of shame and ignominy.

Dr Sukhontha Kongsin (Thailand), who is also the Vice-President, AIDS Society of Asia and the Pacific (ASAP), lauded the very proactive role played by Buddhist monks in Thailand. This becomes all the more significant in view of the fact that 95% of the Thai population practises Buddhism. The 30,000 odd Buddhist temples all over Thailand are not only places of worship, but are meeting places of community activities. The monks are an integral part of social and economic development and play a very positive role in the areas of rural development, environmental protection and in the field of HIV/AIDS.  In keeping with the current needs of society, they have established hospices for People Living with HIV, and also work relentlessly to remove misconceptions and raise awareness about prevention/management of the HIV condition, thus helping in de-stigmatising the disease.

It is high time we realized that HIV/AIDS is not merely a health problem, but it is a spiritual problem too. When religious leaders speak, people follow. So let the religious leaders come out of their closed precincts and preach openness, understanding and inclusiveness, instead of stigmatizing the differently oriented children of God.

Shobha Shukla - CNS
(The author is the Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS) and is reporting on-site from 10th ICAAP, Busan, South Korea for CNS. She is a J2J Fellow of National Press Foundation (NPF) USA. She has worked earlier with State Planning Institute, UP and taught physics at India's prestigious Loreto Convent. Email:, website:

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