Religious leaders regret stigmatising people with HIV

Moi University student Dorcas Kawira, 20, speaks during the Unesco youth and reproductive HIV forum where she announced she was HIV positive on November 30, 2011. She was born with the virus and lost her parents when she was six years old.

Photo/FILE Moi University student Dorcas Kawira, 20, speaks during the Unesco youth and reproductive HIV forum where she announced she was HIV positive on November 30, 2011. She was born with the virus and lost her parents when she was six years old.

Posted  Friday, March 9  2012 at  22:30

In Summary

  • Faith-based organisations vow to discard their strong-stance approach and adopt a new way of fighting HIV prevalence after a joint meeting with government representatives

Kenyan religious leaders have often viewed matters to do with HIV and Aids through a sexual and moral lens.

Often taking a strong stance, the religious leaders have been known to reprimand people living with HIV. Not any more.

A recent meeting bringing together Christian and Muslim religious leaders acknowledged that this approach to fighting HIV prevalence in the country had been wrong and that it had inflicted harm on the infected people.

The meeting, at a Nairobi hotel, agreed that the strong-stance approach had only helped to alienate people living with HIV from the society.

In a 2012 report by National Aids Control Council (NACC), a copy of which Saturday Nation has, the leaders admit that they need to do more to help reduce the spread of HIV. (READ: Editorial: Right move by faiths in fight against HIV)

“We are concerned that for the last 27 years, we as religious leaders, have perceived HIV and Aids as a sexual and moral issue leading to unintended stigma towards individuals, families and communities in Kenya,” they say.

In the communiqué titled Declaration of Commitment by Religious Leaders on HIV Prevention: Doing More and Doing Better Towards Zero New Infections, the leaders add:

“This has contributed to stigma, shame, silence, denial, discrimination, inaction, and mis-action that continue to undermine the national HIV prevention, treatment and care efforts.”

The leaders were drawn from the National Council of Churches of Kenya, the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims, the Anglican Church, the African Inland Church, the Salvation Army, the Deliverance Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Seventh Day Adventist church, the Friends Church and the Presbyterian Church, among others.

They further acknowledged that matters of faith have sometimes led to non-adherence to HIV treatment by those infected.

In their candid declaration, they recognised the existence of serious gender imbalances and injustices, which were making women and girls bear the greatest burden of HIV.

While faith-based organisations are implementing some HIV activities around treatment and prevention, especially focused on abstinence, this is the first time they have made, as group, an official and unequivocal declaration about their actions in the fight against the disease.

It was also a defining moment as they have declared their strong commitment to take part in broad programmes in the management of HIV and Aids.

An Action Plan for 2011-2012 details the various strategies the religious leaders will use to roll out their activities.

They want to ensure that they are fully engaged in the prevention, treatment, and care of people living with the virus and their families.

ong the activities will be integrating HIV in theological studies; training religious leaders on sexuality issues; incorporating HIV information in their sermons; and development of a policy that will protect worshippers from mis-informed religious leaders.

Other strategies to be implemented this year include reviewing the theology expressed in prayer, song, sermons and testimonies to promote what they call “safer practices”, access to treatment and nutrition, voluntary, routine and stigma-free counselling and testing and empowerment.

Religious leaders will also be expected to re-interpret the scriptures liberally; to use spiritual and medical doctors to clarify facts; and to speak openly about sexual and gender-based violence.

The government, on its part, wants religious leaders to speak with one voice on HIV and Aids matters.

In this regard, the National Aids Control Council is in the process of signing a memorandum of understanding with the religious leaders about their specific actions on managing the disease.

“In 2011, we formed a think tank to advise on how faith-based organisations can be used effectively to reach and reduce the rate of new HIV infection in marriages and among young people,” says Dr Sobbie Mulindi, the NACC deputy director who is coordinating the process of bringing on board religious leaders.

The need to engage the faith-based organisations was prompted by recent survey findings which showed that more new HIV infections were occurring in married couples than in any other grouping.

The religious organisations, which advocate sex only in marriage and are in contact with a majority of the married couples, were identified as key in helping reduce HIV infections in this group.

Leaders will be key in the anti-HIV fight. For many years, the leaders have taken a stand that those who are found to be HIV positive were reaping the sins of promiscuity.

Most of the infected people within the church and other religious groupings were, therefore, stigmatised. They refused to go public about their HIV status for fear of being disgraced.

This position by church leaders also made many people shun HIV testing, fearing the backlash they might experience if they tested positive.

The use of condoms was also condemned; they were seen as encouraging immorality among young people and in marriages.

Abstinence received plenty of attention, with sexually active young people being asked to wait until they were married to engage in sex.

However, recent statistics that show that HIV infection is high among married people than in other groups seem to have thrown the church off balance.

Marriage, an institution that was advocated for by the church as the best assurance against infection, is now the leading driver of the disease, with 44 per cent of new infections being reported among married couples.

This rate is higher than the one reported among commercial sex workers (14.1 per cent), men who have sex with men (15.2 per cent), and drug users (3.8 per cent), who, when put together, are responsible for 33 per cent of new HIV infections.

In addition to HIV infections being high in marriages and among steady partners, the church has been forced to reassess itself, especially after some religious leaders and its followers declared publicly that they were HIV positive.

The Anglican Church, for instance, found out in a 2004 survey that 65,000 of their adherents were living with HIV/Aids.

The church says in its ACK Mandate on HIV/Aids: “The church can no longer bury its head in the sand while its own people are dying, suffering and caring for their loved ones due to HIV/Aids.”

It is also instructive that some hospitals run by churches do care for people living with HIV.

Last year, Pope Benedict XVI, the head of Catholic Church, made the strongest indication yet about the church’s changing view on condoms when he said the contraceptives could be used in exceptional circumstances to reduce infections among certain groups such as male sex workers.

His comments were captured in a new book, Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times, written by a German journalist.

The Pope was, however, fast to add that a more humane attitude to sexuality, and not condom use, was the proper way to combat HIV infection, according to BBC News, Europe.

The change of heart by religious leaders is good news for HIV advocates, who have constantly implored faith-based organisations to support all interventions against the disease, including condom use.

Many of the advocates have argued that HIV is not about morality and that there were other cultural, gender, environmental and religious factors that predispose people to infection. Religious leaders, the advocates argued, should see the disease from this perspective.

The NACC, too, realised that they would not achieve much in the fight against HIV unless religious leaders, who command a massive following among the public, were brought on board. It is estimated that over 80 per cent of Kenyans are Christians.

Spreading the message

It is also acknowledged that the faith-based organisations have a major influence on the behaviour, decisions and actions of its followers.

Having them as partners in the fight against the disease is a guarantee that the message is going to reach many people.

“Religious leaders are very instrumental in offering effective HIV information that can dramatically bring down the number of new HIV infections,” says Dr Mulindi.

Experts on HIV have for a long time argued that having religious organisations on board would significantly reduce stigma, which is the main factor why people fail to go for HIV testing, disclose their status, seek treatment or adhere to their therapy, and engage in risky sexual behaviour.

 In their declaration, religious organisations identified five key commitments. One of them was to work with people living with HIV and Aids to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV by 2015.

They also vowed to adopt a faith and evidence-based non-stigmatising approach in their fight against the spread of HIV.

In the declaration, the leaders planned to encourage their members to go for HIV testing as a starting point for HIV prevention, care and treatment.

The leaders also vowed to enhance their advocacy for local financing of the anti-HIV war.

To achieve all these, NACC plans to train religious leaders on HIV, basic counselling skills and voluntary counselling and testing (VCT).


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