(RNS) — Since the earliest days of the AIDS epidemic, many communities of faith have supported millions of people living with HIV and kept future generations free from HIV through their prevention efforts.
Their engagement on the front lines of health, especially in the Global South, predates that of many health organizations. Churches have built countless hospitals and clinics; faith leaders, including women, were among the first responders to HIV.
Today, communities from all faith traditions are engaged in the HIV response. Their continued leadership in ensuring respect for human dignity, justice and rights is critical.
As the world accelerates its efforts to end AIDS, faith communities remain central to our success.
Communities of faith offer a path to many who are hard to reach. Their mission to deliver compassion and care to all in need, including the world’s poorest and those shunned by society, has deepened and broadened the impact of the global response to AIDS.
That special openness has never been more important than today, when ending AIDS requires reaching all who are living with, or who are at risk for contracting, HIV.
I appreciated anew the critical role of the faith community in ending AIDS earlier this month when I was in Addis Ababa for the 29th African Union Summit.
During the meeting, African heads of state recommitted to reaching more people in need, more quickly. Faith leaders and their congregations will play a critical role in these efforts. Across Africa we are “fast-tracking” our efforts.
This includes efforts to revitalize HIV prevention, especially among adolescent girls and young women; consolidate progress on elimination of mother-to-child transmission of HIV; accelerate implementation of HIV testing and treatment for men; and address financial sustainability for the AIDS response. The church has an important role to play in each of these goals.
This plan is based on the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) “Fast-Track” approach, which demonstrates that if we front-load resources and apply our efforts to the people and places where the need is greatest, by 2020 we can expand prevention and treatment and put the world on course to end AIDS by 2030.
“Fast-Track” modeling shows that using tools and knowledge we have, we could avert an additional 17.6 million new HIV infections and 10.8 million AIDS-related deaths.
Enormous progress has been made in the global response to HIV. Of the 37 million people living with the virus, more than 18 million are receiving treatment.
But another 18 million men, women and children living with HIV aren’t getting it. Millions more need tailored, age-specific HIV prevention services that embrace the UNAIDS life-cycle approach of ensuring that children are born HIV-free, that they stay HIV-free through their adolescent and adult lives and that lifesaving HIV treatment is available to all living with HIV.
To reach this goal, we must call for global solidarity to quicken the pace of our outreach, in which the faith community must play a leading role.
Whether speaking about AIDS, maternal and child health, vaccines, sanitation, nutrition, family planning or other critical lifesaving issues, church elders are powerful educators. The respect and trust they engender allow them to address sensitive issues in ways that make their congregations comfortable and better able to protect themselves.
Faith leaders can be especially effective talking to young people by encouraging messages of inclusion for all, even the most marginalized. Such talk should be underpinned by scientific evidence of what works and what doesn’t. Reaching this next generation is paramount, given that the largest cohort of young people ever is about to come of age in Africa.
Today in sub-Saharan Africa, young women and girls are eight times more likely to contract HIV than their male peers. Young people rarely visit health centers; educating and protecting them before they are exposed to HIV is essential for ending AIDS.
Faith leaders also have a unique role in reaching men and boys, two groups that rarely intersect traditional health systems unless they have a health emergency. Too many men and boys don’t know their HIV status and aren’t accessing prevention or treatment services. We won’t reach them in the clinics, but we will reach them in their houses of worship.
In addition, faith-based organizations can be particularly effective at reducing HIV-related stigma and discrimination. In so doing, they make it easier for all people to come forward for services, stay on treatment — and stay healthy. The church’s holistic approach delivers both healing and hope to individuals affected and infected with HIV.
Faith-led, family-centered care clinics teach not just the person living with HIV but also the person’s extended family. By helping those closest to a person living with HIV understand the disease, including the reality that treatment leads to viral suppression, which prevents transmission, faith leaders increase the odds that people with HIV will have the emotional support they need to stay healthy. Caring for and supporting the whole family also means spouses and children remain HIV-free.
Healthy adults can raise healthy children. With families intact, fewer children are orphaned. When communities are protected, nations become stronger, more peaceful and more secure.
The opportunity to end AIDS is within our reach. But getting to the finish line will only be possible with communities of faith working together and continuing their long-standing commitment to compassionate care and service.
(Michel Sidibé is executive director of UNAIDS)
NAIROBI, Kenya (RNS) On Valentine’s Day, some Kenyan pastors handed out red roses as a sign of love to HIV-positive youth suffering stigma and discrimination.
The gesture was meant as a way to reach out to youth, many of whom feel rejected by the churches.
“We came to show the youth that we care and support them,” said the Rev. Geoffrey Wanjala Munialo, a pastor with Vineyard Church, a Pentecostal congregation in Nairobi.
“We’ve also been teaching them the right perspective of love,” he added. “The right perspective helps people care and eliminate stigma and discrimination in HIV.”
Widespread stigma prevents many youth living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, from coming forward and acknowledging their condition.
“Most parents prefer the status of their children remain unknown,” said Munialo. “They fear guilt by association.”
Mary Mutua, who is HIV-positive, said she blames the church for not giving greater priority to people like her.
“The church does not want to talk about it,” she said, because it means acknowledging that young people contract the virus through sexual intercourse.
“Many are comfortable supporting those who got it at birth because they feel it’s less sinful,” she added.
AIDS is the No. 1 cause of death among adolescents in Africa, according to a UNICEF study that showed the number of teenagers dying from AIDS has tripled since 2000, while the number of new infections in other age groups has slowed.
Girls subject to sexual violence, forced marriages and trafficking, and gay and bisexual boys who use drugs are especially vulnerable.
The Rev. James Muhia, the parish minister at the Presbyterian Church of East Africa in Ruiru near Nairobi, acknowledges that churches have not always done the right thing by young people.
“Forgiveness will open the doors for the church to accept and embrace them,” Muhia said, referring to young people.
Jane Ng’ang’a, the program officer for the International Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV-Kenya, urged churches to work to become safe places for the youth and others.
“There are some wounded youth who have come to church,” said Ng’ang’a, “but they do not feel safe enough to share their condition.”
(Fredrick Nzwili is an RNS correspondent based in Nairobi)
by Fredrick Nzwili
NAIROBI, Kenya (RNS) Some Kenyan churches are demanding premarital HIV testing before weddings, a trend activists warn is infringing on the rights of people living with HIV and AIDS.
For some, it’s a quiet matter, with the couples privately told to check with a doctor or a clinic, but for others an HIV test is a mandatory requirement before the couples are joined in marriage.
Recently, some Pentecostal and evangelical groups have demanded strict adherence to the requirement, while Roman Catholic and most mainline Protestant churches tend to be less strict.
“The practice has become entrenched in many churches,” said Jane Ng’ang’a, coordinator of the Kenyan chapter of an international network of religious leaders living with HIV/AIDS. “While it is agreeable to advise a couple to take the test, our concern is the demand for a disclosure of the status is against the law. The challenge is that most church leaders do not know the law.”
During the past decade, new HIV infections in the largely Christian country have risen faster than in any other in sub-Saharan country, according to a study by the Global Burden of Disease collaborative.
Last year, over 1.8 million Kenyans were living with the HIV virus, which, if left untreated, can lead to AIDS. Nearly 39 percent of those were using life-prolonging antiretroviral drugs, a rate below the regional average rate of 43 percent.
Ten years ago, the country passed a law banning HIV tests as a precondition for marriage. The law warns against breaching confidentiality and disclosing individual statuses without consent.
But Ng’ang’a said the network was recently alarmed after it found out that some churches were breaching confidentiality after receiving the tests.
“Some tests were kept in open files that could easily be scrutinized by anyone,” she said. “We see this as a new form of stigma and discrimination for those with HIV and AIDS.”
The clergy who demand the HIV tests say they are driven by a desire to protect their members from HIV and AIDS. They say the church needs to help nurture healthy families and prevent divorce, disease and death.
“A HIV test is mandatory for any couple planning to wed in our church,” said the Rev. Solomon Mwalili of the Free Pentecostal Fellowship in Kenya. “I think it’s for general good — for the two involved and the family they plan to raise.”
Pentecostal pastor James Kyalo of the Machakos region, 40 miles from the capital Nairobi, said his church demands two HIV tests: the first when the couple seeks to start the wedding process; then six months later.
He said the church members have never protested or complained about the requirement.
Some pastors say couples should know the test results if they plan to rear children. Once they know they are infected, for example, they can seek advice from doctors on how to care for themselves and how to live in the community.
The Rev. Patrick Lihanda, superintendent of the Pentecostal Assemblies of God, said that when one of the couples is HIV-positive, they do not ask the couple to split, but instead advise them how to live together.
“HIV is a reality and we cannot bury our heads in the sand,” said Lihanda. “When we find out that one of couple is infected, we counsel them and marry them. I think that’s the best thing to do, since they are in love.”
The Rev. Wellington Mutiso, an official with the Baptist Convention of Kenya, said many Baptist churches do not demand the test, since most couples have already engaged in premarital sex before the church wedding.
Like Baptists, mainline churches find the demand for the test discriminatory and an obstacle in the fight against the epidemic.
“A certificate or a test is not important for us, since anyone can contract HIV,” said Anglican Bishop Julius Kalu of the Mombasa Diocese. “The virus does not also mean one cannot live a full life. Even in cases of HIV, the couple can still live together.”
(Fredrick Nzwili is an RNS correspondent based in Nairobi)