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AIDS 2016: “Stigma kills more people than HIV”

AIDS 2016: “Stigma kills more people than HIV”

Faith pre-conference hears challenges in the AIDS response. © Albin Hillert/WCC

17 July 2016

By Bonginkosi Moyo-Bango

More than 150 people attending the interfaith pre-conference, which opened on 16 July in Durban, heard urgent challenges to reduce stigma and discrimination; increase access to HIV services; and defend human rights as key elements of ending AIDS as a public health threat by 2030.

The clarion call to the faith representatives echoed by all speakers in the opening plenary is to join hands and accelerate all HIV interventions so that more people are tested and treated, with greater respect and promotion of all human rights so as to reduce new infections.

New infections, which for awhile had plateaued, have started to rise alarmingly, according to a UNAIDS report presented by Cesar Antonio Nunex, director of UNAIDS Latin America  and Caribbean.

“Progress has stagnated. There are even increases in several regions of the world,” he warned.

Nunex highlighted the wide variety of services provided by faith-based organizations (FBOs) and noted that up to 50% of care and support for people living with HIV, which makes up  approximately one-fourth of all HIV treatment and care, is provided by FBOs. These organizations are critical partners in the next five years, to scale up and accelerate this work focusing on using innovative methodology to hasten implementation, local and macro-level change so as to reach 90% of persons living with HIV and to put them all on treatment that allows them to have suppressed viral loads.

Nunex also identified “sticky floors” which appear to hold the faith community back from a full response, such as the label of homophobia, which doesn’t recognize the tremendous work in support of stigmatized and marginalized people living with HIV. Rights language, he also acknowledged, sometimes generates resistance among religious communities.

Faghmeda Miller, a health promoter/counsellor at the University of the Western Cape and the only Muslim woman openly living with HIV in South Africa particularly challenged participants to be the agents of change.

“In my 22 years of living openly with HIV, people like myself continue to be discriminated against. Although antiretrovirals (ARVs) are now available at clinics, they are not accessible to all because the clinics are HIV-unfriendly places,” she said.

“Religious leaders who have the potential to play a major role in spreading the correct information and using their premises for the distribution of ARVs have become immune to the HIV pandemic except on World Aids Day,” Miller stated.

“We cannot look the other way whilst people living with HIV die - we need to start talking about HIV and stop labelling people. A person can live long with the virus; what is killing us is the stigma attached to the virus. Stigma kills more people than HIV and AIDS.”

The final speaker moved participants with her personal story. Twenty-five-year-old, Nadege Uwase Munyaburanga has lived with HIV all her life, but found out she was positive at 16.

“I’ve learnt how to forgive my parents who love me dearly, and I am committed to achieving my dreams as a scientist and not just be defined as a young woman living with HIV,” she said

Working through the YWCA, Munyaburanga is committed to helping create safe spaces for young people.

“Psychosocial and emotional support are integral for youth acceptance of their HIV status to avert feelings of self-hatred, stigma and self -justified revenge,” she said.

The presence of more than 50 percent women parliamentarians in Rwanda has helped that country with gender justice issues which, in turn, help young women like Munyaburanga to thrive.

The interfaith pre-conference is being held 16-17 July at the La Vita Conference Center in Durban, South Africa. The conference is being held in advance of AIDS 2016 which opens on 18 July.

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For more information or to request interviews with faith-based representatives, please contact Sara Speicher, coordinator of the AIDS 2016 Ecumenical Media Team at ssp@wcc-coe.org, +27.71.206.3427; or contact Marianne Ejdersten, WCC director of communication, mej@wcc-coe.org, +41.79.507.6363