Feature story

Archbishop of Canterbury: “AIDS is not just a question of epidemiology but a question of social life”

01 March 2012

L to R: UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé, Advocacy Officer with Christian Aid Winnie Ssanyu Sseruma, Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Douglas Williams. UNAIDS offices in Geneva, Switzerland. 29 February 2012.
Credit: UNAIDS/F. Chironi

The Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Douglas Williams made an official visit to UNAIDS Headquarters in Geneva on 29 February 2012. The aim of the visit was to build on the collaborative partnership established last year between the Anglican Communion and UNAIDS around a number of issues including sexual violence, human rights and HIV.

Archbishop Rowan also took the opportunity to participate in a town hall meeting with UNAIDS staff where he highlighted some of the critical linkages between HIV and the broader social challenges facing the global community today. The Archbishop commended UNAIDS staff for their work and pointed out that work on the HIV response has a far greater impact than we may realize.

“AIDS presents us with a cluster of issues that are not just a question of epidemiology but are a prism through which a whole range of social issues come into sharp focus,” said Archbishop Rowan. “AIDS can be the key that opens the way to address many other issues such as the role of women, the rights of minorities and the food security.”

AIDS presents us with a cluster of issues that are not just a question of epidemiology but are a prism through which a whole range of social issues come into sharp focus

Archbishop of Canterbury

UNAIDS staff posed questions to the Archbishop on a wide range of issues. He elaborated on the role of the Anglican Church in reducing stigma and discrimination of people living with HIV; young people and sexuality; dignity of key populations and the involvement of men to eliminate gender based violence.

Winnie Ssanyu Sseruma, Advocacy Officer with Christian Aid also participated in the conversation and provided the perspective of a person living with HIV and working with faith based organizations in the response to AIDS. Ms Sseruma highlighted the need to seek opportunities in times of crisis to ensure that all people living with HIV have access to treatment. “We need to find the money for HIV treatment,” said Ms Sseruma. “If we don’t, what we’ve been working on will unravel in front of our eyes.”

UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé highlighted the critical role the faith plays in the response to HIV. According to Mr Sidibé, the faith community has done excellent work in terms of care and support, and providing HIV services. At the same time, he agreed with Archbishop Rowan that faith leaders can also perpetuate negative attitudes that promote stigma and discrimination.

“The only way we’ll be able to address issues of human suffering and HIV will be by developing a people-centered approach to the AIDS response that calls for compassion,” said Mr Sidibé. “If we want to make the UNAIDS vision a reality, we need to think about global justice, redistribution of opportunities and a revision of the paradigm of solidarity existing today.”

Anglican responses to HIV

The Archbishop of Canterbury praised the UNAIDS’ Strategic Framework on Partnership with Faith-based Organizations (FBOs) and stressed the need to promote it as widely as possible among all faith communities. He recognized that conversations around AIDS issues at inter-faith level have still “a long way to go” and singled out the framework as a catalyst to bring faith communities together.

According to the UNAIDS’ Framework, FBOs have been, and are, major providers of HIV-related services, including to populations that are underserved by governments and other service providers.

In 2008, UNAIDS and WHO co-funded a study on the contribution of the Anglican Communion to achieving universal access to HIV treatment, prevention, care and support through their health structures. The study demonstrated the value of working through faith structures, which in the case of the Anglican churches have a membership of 40 million members in Africa. These are organized in an inter-connected hierarchy, from the continent, national, district to local community/parish level. HIV programme staff or trained focal people at different levels deliver on policy and advocacy, capacity building and community services for HIV prevention, treatment, care and support.

Meeting with UN Plus

Earlier in the day Archbishop Rowan met with UN Plus members—the group of UN staff living with HIV—to discuss issues around the role of the church in its response to AIDS. UN Plus members were keen to know how the Anglican Church and the FBO community would respond to HIV-related stigma and discrimination, in particular in cooperation with leaders of other religions.

The Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Douglas Williams met with representatives from UN Plus on 29 February 2012 at the UNAIDS offices in Geneva.
Credit: UNAIDS/F. Chironi

The Archbishop emphasized that any form of stigma and discrimination was unacceptable and they need to be fought against. According to the Archbishop Rowan, stigma and discrimination must continue to be addressed through messages and activities. For example, World AIDS Day serves as a good opportunity to communicate on HIV related issues to congregations.  A few years ago, Canon Gideon Byamugisha from Uganda, a faith based leader living with HIV, made a significant intervention that mobilized the Church to begin to seriously address stigma and discrimination within the faith community. Nonetheless, it has sometimes proved challenging to garner support from other religious leaders and this remains an important issue for the Church to work on.

UN Plus and the Archbishop agreed to call for further collaboration among the networks of people living with HIV and the faith community to eliminate stigma and discrimination against key populations at higher risk.

Human rights, sexuality and reproductive rights

As part of his visit to Geneva, Archbishop Rowan also gave a lecture on Human Rights and Religious Faith at the World Council of Churches on 28 February 2012. The lecture suggested ways in which the discourses of human rights and religious conviction might be reconnected through concepts of human dignity and human relatedness. This analysis provides a new way to approach the increasing gap between the Human Rights discourse and that of culture and faith. The Archbishop articulated how the human rights dialogue can be situated as a crucial way of working out how people can belong together in society.