Wednesday 24 September 2014

Invoking faith to fight HIV stigma

Looking back, it’s easy to see that Stepping Up in Faith: the AIDS 2014 Interfaith Pre-Conference (held on 18–19 July) previewed many of the significant topics discussed at AIDS 2014, in particular, stigma, criminalisation, and the need for inclusion and celebration of sexual orientation and gender diversity in faith-based responses to HIV.

For me, the stand out presenters at the pre-conference were those who stressed that faith communities must not only be inclusive and supportive of diversity, but should be advocates for the rights of all vulnerable populations – including  gay men, transgender people and sex workers.

The Rev. Phumzile Mabizela, INERELA+ Executive Director, set the tone in her opening address, saying ‘sexuality is a gift from God’;  and ‘sex workers, gay people, they are created in the image of God and we can learn from them’.

Phumzile was also one of several speakers who talked about being HIV-positive. (INERELA+ is an international network of religious leaders who are living with, or personally affected, by HIV.) If the pre-conference achieved nothing else, the fact that several speakers, including faith leaders and a young gay man from Africa, talked openly about their HIV status and sexuality, and shared their stories of stigmatisation and discrimination, was an enormous step towards eliminating stigma.

Phumzile also flagged the problem that sacred texts are often used to justify stigma and discrimination. In fact, an entire breakout session was devoted to this issue. I was not able to attend that session, but a comprehensive summary is available on the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance blog. The summary includes comment from APCOM chairperson Dédé Oetomo, about differing Islamic perspectives on homosexuality. (APCOM is one of AFAO’s international partners).

Ken Moala
Another of AFAO’s partners, the Pacific Sexual Diversity Network, was represented at the forum by Ken Moala, who talked about the impact of the criminalisation of homosexuality. He said that men who have sex with men and transgender people are over represented in HIV diagnoses throughout the Pacific, yet they cannot disclose their sexuality to medical practitioners without risking criminal sanctions.

Ken is himself an ordained pastor who has been working on sexuality issues with faith leaders in Samoa since 2007. He said many religious organisations in Samoa discriminate against LGBTI people and it’s vital to have their support before approaching politicians about legislative change to end criminalisation.

Some Australian work with religious leaders was also showcased in a breakout session. Samuel Muchoki, (Centre for Culture, Ethnicity and Health - CEH), gave a presentation on the Melbourne Interfaith forum earlier this year that was initiated by the Multicultural Sexual health Network. Samuel pointed out that HIV services in Australia are very secular, and rarely engage with people in regard to their faith, although for many people with HIV from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, spirituality is an integral part of their life.

The forum aimed to engage faith leaders with HIV so that they could provide the spiritual support that was missing from secular services, as well as address stigma and discrimination within their communities. ‘Once faith leaders recognise that HIV is in their community, they realise they cannot ignore it and are motivated to take action’, Samuel said. View Forum report

L-R: Peter Griffiths, Marg Hayes and Samuel Muchoki.
Following on from this, Marg Hayes and Peter Griffiths from Melbourne’s Catholic AIDS Ministry (CAM) – one of very few faith-based HIV services in Australia – talked about the Ministry’s success in supporting people with HIV. They also presented Angels in Disguise, a book of personal stories about HIV, faith, and CAM’s 20 year history. The session concluded with an interesting discussion about how to engage faith leaders in the HIV response, and how to ensure people with HIV are actively engaged in this.

One of my highlights from the pre-conference was Susan Brennan (World YWCA Vice President), speaking at the closing session. She spoke about how the organisation had reoriented its work in recent years to place young women ‘affected by and living with HIV at centre of our work … We have to think and talk in new ways that might feel uncomfortable, committing ourselves to a new agenda’, she said.

Susan made a strong statement that the YWCA’s policy positions on issues like decriminalisation of homosexuality and young women’s reproductive and health rights, were consistent with their faith. ‘Unless we dare to make this commitment in the name of our faith, others will make statements [using faith to justify oppression]’, she said.

It was a rousing call to arms. I had no idea the YWCA was so radical. I think the audience shared her passion – my impression was that people left the interfaith pre-conference, and subsequent interfaith activities during AIDS2014, inspired and energised to, well, spread the word.

More on the interfaith pre-conference

Interfaith Pre-conference opens in Melbourne

Religious leaders challenged to continue the fight to ensure access for all to HIV care

Faith, compassion and acceptance: Addressing homophobia and HIV-related stigma

Interfaith Pre-conference program

Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance HIV resources

Jill Sergeant is a Project Officer with the Policy and Communications Team at the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO).

1 comment:

  1. maggie.danhakl@healthline.com18 December 2014 at 18:29

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.