Effective HIV/AIDS Responses Are Built On Data and Humanity

Sumita Thapar - CNS
“As religious leaders we tend to believe we have a direct line to God, we tend to think we know it all. We don’t. We need to learn. Religious leaders don’t even know their own sexuality, never mind homosexuality,” said Rev Mabizela Phumzile, Executive Director, INERALA+ (International Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Affected by AIDS).

INERELA, which started in Africa 10 years ago, aims to provide a safe space for religious leaders directly affected by the epidemic and to empower them to be agents of hope and change. “We as religious leaders share our stories and use our skills. We ask faith based leaders to use our social capital to put out the message that HIV is a chronic condition; it is not a medical issue. There is a need to demystify it, to break the myth that HIV affects ‘bad’ people,” Rev Phumzile said.

Rev Phumzile was speaking at an Interfaith Preconference organized at ICAAP 11 by AINA – Asian Interfaith Network on AIDS – and INERELA+ -- in partnership with UNAIDS.  Religious leaders across faiths – Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim – came together to deliberate their response to the AIDS epidemic.

AINA -- Asian Interfaith Network on HIV/AIDS -- was started in 2004 to mobilize faith leaders in the response to HIV. Dr Asavari Herwadkar, AINA, said faith-based response has been more organised in the Church where HIV has been made part of training curriculum for religious leaders.

Steve Kraus, UNAIDS Regional Director for Asia Pacific, spoke of the need for early HIV testing and access to care, especially among key populations. He said that 61% say that they do not access health services as they feel self -stigma and shame. ‘As faith leaders you have the responsibility to give voice to the voiceless,’ Kraus said. He spoke of the need to take away the shame and the guilt and the need to treat everyone with dignity and respect.

Dawn Foderingham, UNAIDS, who has facilitated dialogue with faith leaders in the AIDS response over years said-- partnerships take time, but results show that ‘anything is possible’.

Rev Mabizela, who has been living with HIV since 1999, spoke of the need to bring together data and awareness about humanity in order to develop an effective response. “At one time in 2010 HIV prevalence where I was living was 45%. I had to tell myself that this means one out of every two people I meet is HIV positive. What am I doing about it,” she said.

Rev Mabizela, an Ordained Minister in the Presbyterian Church of Africa, currently lives in Pretoria. “We should be empowering people to respond to issues that affect them,” she said, adding that “INERALA was set up to address stigma, shame, discrimination and denial. The organization currently has 23 networks comprising over 10,000 members across continents and faiths.”

Sumita Thapar, Citizen News Service - CNS
November 2013

Note: This article was first published in 11th ICAAP INSIGHT, the official daily conference newspaper of 11th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (11th ICAAP) in Bangkok, Thailand. This newspaper was managed by Inis Communication and CNS.