As communities around the globe mark World AIDS Day on 1 December, there is a new emphasis on “Getting to Zero”.
By Sara Speicher, Project Manager for HIV and AIDS, Communication and Stigma (consultant), WACC-UK
As communities around the globe mark World AIDS Day on 1 December, there is a new emphasis on “Getting to Zero”: achieving zero deaths, zero new infections and zero discrimination by 2015. These goals, set by UNAIDS, set the targets for the treatment, prevention, care and support needed to overcome the HIV pandemic.
Reducing stigma, saving lives
The World Association for Christian Communication (WACC’s) long standing focus on gender-sensitive communication strategies to reduce HIV-related stigma and discrimination is particularly relevant today, as women make up 50% of people living with HIV – 59% in sub-Saharan Africa.
|WACC Project partners, Hope for HIV/AIDS International in Lagos, Nigeria
distribute red ribbons to raise awareness of World AIDS Day.Women make up
50% of people living with HIV – 59% in sub-Saharan Africa.
In addition to supporting small local projects and participating in international advocacy through the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance (EAA), WACC has partnered with organizations, first in Ghana and now in Nigeria, in more intensive, multi-year projects funded through UKaid from the Department for International Development.
In Accra, the Christian Council of Ghana (CCG) embarked on an ambitious project, in 2008, to address HIV-related stigma and discrimination in three districts by transforming local leaders into advocates for the rights and dignity of people living with HIV. Over 1700 religious, community, traditional, women and youth leaders, along with teachers, health workers and media practitioners, were trained and supported through the project to undertake rights-based advocacy and communication.
The project demonstrated the effectiveness of promoting and supporting local leadership and networking, developing education and campaign materials in local languages appropriate to the context, and including and empowering people living with HIV. The stories and testimonies of those involved demonstrate that reducing HIV-related stigma allows space for people living with HIV to identify and advocate for changing practices and life-transforming changes.
HIV and AIDS has been with us for 30 years, but only in the last few years have global statistics shown that medical advances, greater access to treatment, community education, and strategic and comprehensive approaches to prevention, care and support have reduced the rate of new HIV infections and deaths from AIDS-related illnesses. Yet AIDS is far from over – there were 2.7 million new HIV infections in 2010 and 1.8 million deaths due to AIDS-related illnesses. And while nearly half of those living with HIV in low- and middle-income countries who need treatment are now receiving it, that still means that 7.6 million people are not. With an estimated 34 million people living with HIV around the world, the complex issues which drive the pandemic still face us: poverty, violence, marginalization and silence.
Prayer camps as places of real healing
Supernatural beliefs about the origin of HIV and AIDS, for example, have led many in Ghana to seek cures from spiritual leaders, often leading them to neglect taking their anti-retroviral treatment (ART) regimens and making them vulnerable to gross exploitation because of their desperation to have their health restored. Spiritual leaders known as prophets and prophetesses operate ‘prayer camps’ in which persons seeking help move into, sometimes temporarily but often times permanently. Their unpaid labour and any worldly wealth is given freely to the leaders in exchange for prayer. Many in their last stage of AIDS are chained and beaten to exorcise them of ‘demons’.
The WACC-CCG project reached out to 42 such prayer camps in Manya Krobo to increase understanding of HIV and AIDS, the rights of people living with HIV, stigma and discrimination. One success story is Nyame Sum bo prayer camp whose leaders Prophet Isaac Mangotey and Prophetess Lydia Amui agreed to participate in the capacity building workshop for religious leaders. They thereafter became part of the advocacy campaign leaders, educating residents of their camp and encouraging them to visit the St Martins Clinic for treatment.
Amui says “ignorance is bad and people have died avoidable deaths because treatment was available and we didn’t know... I have just watched the transformation of four people living with HIV who had been put on the anti-retroviral treatment. These model prayer camp leaders have requested support to reach other camps in which exploitative practices continue.
Prayer camps common across Ghana are sustained by several factors, among them, beliefs in traditional cures to diseases that are incurable with western medicine. Prayer camp leaders are treated as demi-gods who, with intense prayer and herbs, can cure all conditions, including HIV/AIDS. This in spite of national efforts to convey the facts about the virus. By reaching out to prayer camps, the project is perhaps one of few that have consciously made an effort to reach out to the camps and work in partnership with the prophets and prophetesses who are surprisingly willing to be part of the solution.
Claiming rights, proclaiming dignity
In Lagos, Nigeria, WACC in partnership with Hope for HIV/AIDS International (HFA) is empowering Christian and Muslim religious leaders and community leaders to overcome stigma and discrimination and empower people living with HIV to advocate for their rights. The project, begun in July 2011, anticipates training 2000 religious and community leaders so that they can educate and support their own communities and lead advocacy and lobbying campaigns to promote and implement anti-stigma initiatives.
While Lagos State policy makers have demonstrated leadership by passing anti-stigma legislation, the power of religious and community leaders to transform attitudes and stigmatizing behaviours has been largely untapped. The WACC-HFA project has received enthusiastic response from the religious communities themselves, demonstrating that the difference between will and action may be providing the knowledge, tools and confidence to make change happen.
|Hope for HIV/AIDS International in Lagos, Nigeria are visiting churches and
mosques to raise awareness of World AIDS Day and its anti-stigma theme,
providing sermons, resources and encouragement to religious leaders
to reach out to their communities. Here they met with the
Al Hawat Central Mosque Leadership and distributed red ribbons.
Where WACC makes a difference
At a time when the global AIDS response is facing renewed calls to demonstrate effectiveness and strategic use of resources, WACC’s projects experience shows the depth and transformative power of intentionally incorporating communication and rights-based advocacy into what might be seen as “development-only” projects.
As we comemmorate this year’s World AIDS Day, WACC is strongly calling for accelarated use of various means of communications by global and local networks to empower communities to tackle the root causes of HIV and AIDS with a vision of “getting to zero”.
“For change to happen and to be sustainable, communication and religion can combine to educate, motivate, equip and empower communities to tackle HIV and AIDS and reduce descrimination and stigma,” says WACC General Secretary, Rev. Karin Achtelstetter.
Below are some useful resources for commemorating the World AIDS Day:
- Tackling HIV and AIDS: Media Development, WACC’s quarterly journal.
- Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance Resources: http://www.e-alliance.ch/en/s/hivaids/world-aids-day
- UNAids: http://www.un.org/en/events/aidsday/2011/
- Stop AIDS Campaign: http://www.stopaidscampaign.org.uk/index.asp?82206839.90413333
- Media Alert: Religious Leaders Gather in Toronto to Review Commitment to HIV