The HIV pandemic has been on the world stage for three decades now and for most of that time, the World Council of Churches and its member churches have been deeply involved in making churches and theological institutions HIV-competent, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, says the global ecumenical body.
The WCC involvement with HIV and AIDS dates to late June 1986, when its then-General Secretary, the Rev Dr Emilio Castro ,was first approached by several churches and the World Health Organisation (WHO) to counter the stigma of HIV that was discouraging funding for medical and pastoral care of those affected by the disease.
With much of its work focused on pastoral care, prevention, education and advocacy, the WCC Central Committee's hearing on AIDS in January 1987 affirmed “the right to medical and pastoral care regardless of socio-economic status, race, sex, sexual orientation or sexual relationship.”
What is AIDS: A Manual for Health Workers (1987) by Birgitta Rubenson was the first WCC publication on AIDS, followed by Learning about AIDS: A Manual for Pastors and Teachers in 1989 and A Guide to HIV/AIDS Pastoral Counseling in 1990 - and the two are still in demand.
Developing contextual biblical, theological, ethical, pastoral and liturgical literature and distributing them free of charge have been among the most significant contributions by the WCC.
Another milestone has been the decision by the WCC Assembly in 1998 to focus on sub-Saharan Africa, the continent that has been most heavily affected by the pandemic. According to UNAIDS reports it was home to 68 per cent of all people living with HIV and 72 per cent of those who died from HIV-related illnesses in 2009. In sub-Saharan Africa, HIV has orphaned more than 14 million children.
After intensive mapping exercises, consultations and studies with churches and theological institutions that took place from 1999 to 2001, WCC launched the Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiative in Africa (EHAIA) as part of the WCC's Health and Healing programme in cooperation with the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC) and other stakeholders including people living with HIV, among them priests.
EHAIA has trained thousands of church leaders, HIV activists and programme officers. It has also mobilised theological institutions to integrate HIV and gender studies into their curriculum in an endeavour to build HIV-competent churches and theological institutions.
Most significantly EHAIA has provided leadership in interrogating the intersection of gender power dynamics, sexual and gender based violence and HIV in the churches.
Furthermore, EHAIA has focused on empowering youth, women and men in transformational leadership and in the critical study of masculinities and femininities in our faith communities and social location.
In Africa, more women than men live with HIV. Today young people account for 40 per cent of new adult infections, that is to say of people over 14 years old in UNAIDS terminology, worldwide. More than 90 percent of all new infections among children are in sub-Saharan Africa, according to United Nations statistics.
"Addressing HIV and AIDS has been a journey of revelation, self-interrogation and re-thinking our theologies and Christian mission as millions continue to suffer and die needlessly" says EHAIA coordinator Rev. Dr Nyambura Njoroge. "Churches and theological institutions in Africa have much to share with the rest of the continents as we enter the fourth decade with HIV."
In February the WCC Central Committee cited “the changing face of the pandemic” and encouraged its member churches to persevere in their efforts and to embrace the vision of the United Nations programme UNAIDS: 'Zero new infections. Zero discrimination. Zero AIDS related deaths'.”
* More information on EHAIA - http://www.oikoumene.org/en/programmes/justice-diakonia-and-responsibili...
* EHAIA Impact Assessment, 2002–2009 - http://www.oikoumene.org/en/programmes/justice-diakonia-and-responsibili...