Feature story

Faith community take action on health, dignity and justice in the context of HIV

20 July 2012

UNAIDS Deputy Executive Director, Programme, Paul De Lay speaking at the opening session of the interfaith event Taking Action for Health, Dignity and Justice.Credit: UNAIDS/Y.Gripas

What is the added value of faith communities taking action on health, dignity and justice in the context of HIV? This was the fundamental question addressed by participants at the interfaith event held in Washington DC on 20 July 2012. Taking Action for Health, Dignity and Justice explored ways in which faith communities can use both advocacy and on-the-ground responses to address the root causes of vulnerability to HIV and promote a more just, equitable and inclusive societies.

“This battle will not be won by pharmaceuticals, but by communities themselves, communities that are marginalized and discriminated against,” said EAA Executive Director Peter Prove. “This is our special role—our presence in those communities, at a grassroots level, and in a leadership role, in forming opinions,” he added.

Through plenary sessions and numerous workshops, hundreds of religious and community leaders, faith-based representatives, young people and people living with HIV provided an overview of the faith community’s work on health, dignity and justice in the context of HIV and discussed the challenges and opportunities ahead. “We gather here to ensure that our legacy is to fulfill God’s most sacred commandment, which is to preserve life,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, Director and Counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, USA.

Speaking at the opening session, UNAIDS Deputy Executive Director, Programme, Paul De Lay stressed the importance of the faith communities’ response to HIV. He cited examples such as the YWCA that has been a leader mobilizing young people around HIV prevention, treatment, care and support, using a broad range of strategies from participating in CrowdOutAIDS to promoting synergies between health and primary and secondary education for girls.

Dr De Lay also highlighted the progress being made by UNAIDS to engage more fully, and in a more knowledgeable way, with faith leaders around to world, to support their positive impact on communities affected by HIV. The UNAIDS Framework for partnership with Faith Based Organizations is an important tool in this work.

This battle will not be won by pharmaceuticals, but by communities themselves, communities that are marginalized and discriminated against

EAA Executive Director Peter Prove

“Now more than ever is it important for us to work in partnership to achieve our common goals,” said Dr De Lay. “We must work together to challenge the ideologies that deprive people of their dignity and their right to development,” he added. 

Participants recognized the power of faith to inspire hope and give comfort to the vulnerable, and to mobilize people—toward compassion, care and service, and away from stigma and discrimination, punitive laws and policies. However, it was also noted the need to be honest about some of the serious stigma and discrimination issues among the faith community.

“My prayer is that faith communities will have the courage to open up these crucial conversations with young women and to accompany them to get correct and accurate information, access to HIV services and be there for them at the point of vulnerability,” said Maria Ziwenge of the Young Women’s Christian Association of Zimbabwe.

Faith perspectives are sometimes hard for scientists to deal with, and are too often left out. In an UNAIDS conducted global review of HIV communication programmes in 1998 it was found that the missing piece in HIV messaging and programming—cited by people in all world regions—was spirituality.

The interfaith pre-conference identified opportunities for the faith community to engage in the HIV response through advocacy by calling for sustainable funding to achieve universal access to HIV treatment for all and holding governments accountable to their commitments; through community mobilization by demanding creation for uptake of voluntary testing and treatment services, especially in the light of the important treatment as prevention findings; and by scaling up service delivery provided by the faith community to support national efforts.