Thousands of volunteers across the country have been involved in raising funds and awareness for the annual Christian Aid Week (10-16 May) which is the UK’s longest running fundraising week, investing in global justice and anti-poverty action.
Christian Aid is a historic UK-based international relief, development and advocacy agency which is backed by a wide range of denominations and works in partnership with the world's poor without regard to creed or background.
Christian Aid Week in 2009 is being fronted by actresses Suranne Jones and Sally Lindsay. The close friends, who became household names after their roles in the legendary TV show Coronation Street (which won several prizes in last night's ITV 'soap awards'), have just returned from seeing the aid agency's work in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Suranne and Sally visited two Christian Aid partner organisations in the capital city of Kinshasa – Fondation Femme Plus (FFP) and AMO Congo. FFP works with HIV positive women and young children through a network of volunteers, offering counselling, advice, care and support in finding ways to make a living. AMO Congo runs health clinics across the country and supports HIV affected orphans and families by providing food, clothes, education, adult job training and business loans.
Both organisations educate the communities in which they work to increase understanding of HIV and its transmission and to challenge the stigma and discrimination surrounding it.
During their trip, Suranne and Sally met survivors of the country's brutal conflict, including a 45 year-old woman called Ambisa who contracted HIV after being raped by soldiers. They also visited a clinic supporting thousands of children orphaned by HIV and met HIV positive women and children whose families had abandoned them because of the stigma of their status.
The conflict in DRC has resulted in over five million deaths, more than any conflict since World War II, and HIV rates could soar as people flee to escape the fighting. In addition, widespread sexual violence by soldiers and disruption to education and health services has led to increased infection rates. It is estimated that 1.3 per cent of the 66m population are living with the virus, but that figure rises to 4.1 per cent amongst pregnant women.
In a country with valuable natural resources, including the world’s largest diamond reserves, Suranne and Sally learnt that under half the population have access to clean drinking water, 76 per cent are malnourished and life expectancy is just 45.
Suranne Jones explained: “I visited Sierra Leone with Christian Aid five years ago and am sad to say many of the stories I heard in the DRC echoed those I previously encountered. Both countries have endured years of conflict and it’s always the ordinary people who suffer the most. But what encourages me is seeing women and children empowered to take control of their lives, often in very dire circumstances. It is the love and dedication of organisations funded by Christian Aid which give people the opportunity to turn their lives around, so please give what you can this Christian Aid week”.
Sally Lindsay added: “I heard very distressing stories but met incredibly inspirational people. The HIV projects which Christian Aid supports are a lifeline for people who often have nowhere else to turn. The biggest tragedy was seeing the potential of a country rich in resources that has been decimated by war and weak government. But the positive was seeing that the work of local organisations supported by Christian Aid can turn things around and really does change people’s lives”.