Byron Buckley, Contributor
REPRESENTATIVES OF UNAIDS are faced with the dilemma of how to enlist the support of local faith-based organisations (FBOs) in the HIV/AIDS prevention campaign without violating the institutions' doctrinal principles. A major stumbling block, which was identified in a recent consultation between church leaders and UNAIDS officials, is the traditional association of the HIV/AIDS messaging with gay-rights issues.
The views of the clerics are summed up in the comments by churchman Major Richard Cooke: "The perception is that the homosexuals have used AIDS to push their agenda. Allow the Church to speak to the church. When we feel that our help is linked to a gay agenda we do not want to be a part of it." The Rev Al Miller echoed similar sentiments: "Perception becomes reality. Changing the face of the historical sellers of the message of HIV prevention is an important and strategic move. We will, therefore, have to identify faces that can have broader appeal in order for us to be successful."
In other words, the clerics are suggesting that the gay-rights agenda has stigmatised the HIV/AIDS prevention programme, and, consequently, has alienated the religious community.
This is an ironic twist, as it is the removal of stigma and discrimination from the HIV/AIDS prevention programme that is the goal of the local and international health-advocacy agencies. In fact, that was the purpose of the recent consultation between representatives of UNAIDS and FBOs. The discussions were informed by the findings of a Ministry of Health (MOH)-commissioned study of leaders of FBOs about the level of stigma and discrimination towards the most-at-risk populations (MARPs) in their organisations, including gay men, sex workers, prisoners and people living with HIV (PLHIV).
The study, which is based on a survey of 41 FBO leaders in 35 denominations across eight parishes, found that senior clerics considered it their "responsibility to uphold moral values and hold society accountable to those values." The findings continued: "Issues of faith and belief go deep and most FBOs have defined principles to which they adhere and which they consider divine and, therefore, are not open to discussion. A related finding is the faulty association of HIV/AIDS with sexual promiscuity (which is not always the case) by some church leaders and congregations.
Al Miller points to the dilemma: "If we are going to solve the problem, we cannot create another problem in order to solve it. We have to separate the issues of stigma and acceptance of behaviour. You have to be careful that you are not selling that 'this is good, this is normal, this is an acceptable lifestyle'."
It is this combination of doctrinal and moral principles that has presented a challenge to both FBOs and health advocates. Where do the twain meet? According to Garth Minott of the United Theological College, "The faith-based community needs to speak within itself. There are differing starting points and doctrinal issues at play here, but we all agree that we want to get to one solution." Keith Ellis, another churchman attending the recent consultation, argued that attitudinal change will not happen from the pulpit. He suggested that FBOs take the findings of the study and "communicate it in a way that is not offensive and is more palatable, such as with a message of love, respect, and compassion, then we can achieve progress."
Despite, their caution about doctrinal and moral issues, as well as their objection to twinning HIV/AIDS prevention messaging with gay rights activism, FBO leaders have expressed and demonstrated a willingness to support the overarching objective of helping to arrest the spread of the epidemic. This response was expressed during the consultation as well as the MOH study. "We need to change some of the language so that it shows the thin line of wisdom. "Let's push the message of 'test and treat' rather than 'stigma and discrimination'," suggested Rev Miller.
Indeed, the MOH study found that several FBOs were engaged at varying levels, in HIV/AIDS care. The report stated: "The attitude of FBO leaders towards persons of the MARPs were mainly favourable. Although they did not support behaviour contrary to their doctrines, they were supportive of rehabilitation of and practical assistance to vulnerable persons reached by their organisations. A few of the religious organisations actually operate facilities that care and counsel PLHIV.
So there is fertile ground for cooperation between the faith-based community and HIV/AIDS prevention advocates, and as the study has found congregations often become supportive of the programme based on exposure to real cases and education.
Byron Buckley is Associate Editor for The Gleaner. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.