Religious leaders issue global challenge to HIV-AIDS stigma
A network of religious leaders from Africa committed to changing the terms of the current debate about HIV and AIDS has gone global at the recent sixteenth International AIDS conference.
The African Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV/AIDS (ANERELA+) is expanding worldwide as faith leaders commit to continuing to combat stigma and discrimination.
At a press conference in Toronto, ANERELA+ announced it is expanding to become an international organisation. It will have branches on all five continents and will be known as INERELA+. The African network works in more than 13 countries and 1,500 members.
The co-founder of Anerela+, Canon Gideon Byamugisha, says faith leaders affected by HIV face a double dose of stigma and discrimination.
ìWe have to deal with our own denial before taking on stigma,î says Canon Gideon. ìOnly then can we deal with stigma and discrimination on the outside.î
The network was formed three years ago when some HIV positive church leaders in Africa felt that the church had to be more honest before it could call for tolerance and openness from its congregations.
Canon Gideon acknowledges that it faces challenges from inside and outside the church. ìMany churches have high levels of stigma and intolerance. There is a direct association between HIV and sin and that is why we have to speak out against it,î he says.
INERELA+ says it will campaign actively against prejudice and discriminatory behaviour and policies, both of which prevent many people from knowing their status and from accessing care and treatment.
ìIf we are going to make any future inroads into HIV and AIDS, it is specifically stigma and discrimination that we are going to have to overcome as a first step,î explains Canon Gideon.
The Rev James Matarazzo of the United Church of Christ is the first representative of the network in the USA and says it will advocate against the discrimination in the United States administrationís HIV funding known as PEPFAR ñ the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief).
ìUS funding discriminates against some of the most vulnerable groups such as sex workers and drug users. Infusing political baggage in HIV is a terrible precedent. My goal for INERELA+ is the de-politicisation of PEPFAR,î Matarazzo says.
Stigma and discrimination are gaining recognition as the key obstacles to HIV prevention. Self-imposed stigma and shame holds people back from getting tested, and ignorance of oneís status fuels the epidemic. Research is now being carried out to find ways to measure stigma and formulate precise steps to overcome it.
The former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, herself a Catholic, told a session on stigma and discrimination that countries had to take the issue seriously.
She declared: ìIf we are finally going to achieve universal access to care and treatment, we first have to eliminate stigma. People should not be living in fear of having their status disclosed with no legal protection, women should not be afraid of losing their homes and families if they are HIV positive. These are basic human rights issues.î
[Also on Ekklesia: Zimbabwean HIV+ woman helps young people Choose Life 18/08/06; Faith-based HIV work doing more harm than good, says African church leader 16/08/06; Christian Aid offers fresh approach to HIV at global AIDS gathering 14/08/06; ëLife Interruptedí: a series of photographs for Christian Aid by the award-winning photojournalist, Don McCullin; United Church of Canada issues bold action call on HIV-AIDS 11/08/06; Faith groups mobilize for global push against AIDS and HIV 08/08/06; Churches sign AIDS code; Flower power deals a fresh blow to HIV-AIDS; Cardinal calls for reduction in price of AIDS medicines; Churches face up to world AIDS pandemic; HIV+ African priest looks to AIDS-free world by 2025; Priests resist condom use in HIV-hit Tanzania; Christian-owned company produces cheap AIDS drugs; US church leader urges action not obstruction on AIDS; The Body of Christ has AIDS, say Methodists; Religious right thwarted AIDS meeting, say NGOs]