The Imperative for Faith Communities: Overcoming the HIV/AIDS Epidemic Through Stigma Reduction

That AIDS is a scourge which continues to fatally wound the physical, cultural, social, economic, political, and spiritual health achievements, hopes and aspirations of individuals, families, communities and nations, is probably an established phenomenon that does not need much debate.
The world faith community has made some good progress against the spread of HIV/AIDS by using individually-focused, informed messages, such as the ABC strategies, Abstinence, Being Faithful, Condom Use, as well as policies, programmes and budgets that are simple, morally appealing, politically convenient, financially lenient and scientifically relevant. For greater and more sustainable success against HIV/AIDS, these messages and programmes must be expanded, and the epidemic tackled with a multi-sectoral, multi-level, and multi-dimensional ethic that simultaneously reduces the Stigma, Shame, Denial, Discrimination, Inaction and Mis-action (SSDDIM) still attached to HIV, while promoting the SAVE model: Safer practices, Available medicines, Voluntary testing and Empowerment through education, at the individual, family, local community, national, regional, and global level. This must be accomplished if we are to significantly halt, reverse, and eventually overcome new infections related to AIDS before the virus triumphantly and devastatingly celebrates its fiftieth anniversary in 2031.
Given the level of knowledge and scientific breakthroughs, new HIV/AIDS-related infections and deaths that are, in principle, preventable and controllable, remain as puzzling as they are scandalous. It is humiliating to people, leaders, and communities of faith who believe that a better reality, free from these calamities, is possible -- especially since the root meaning of the word salvation in theology is health and human flourishing.
In its 2010 Report on the global AIDS epidemic, UNAIDS reminded the world that fulfilling the vision of zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination, and zero new AIDS-related deaths will require a hard look at the societal structures, beliefs and value systems that present obstacles to effective HIV-prevention efforts. We must take this reminder seriously as people, communities, and leaders of faith. Those of us in leadership positions in our faith communities must rise and put on our prophetic gowns and ministry vestments to speak the whole truth around AIDS-related stigma.
The AIDS world is in need of approaches that are capable of bringing about not only AIDS-competent individuals, but also AIDS-competent families, communities, and nations. We are in need of approaches that come from a political, social, moral, spiritual, theological, and philosophical leadership paradigm, and a world view that emphasizes the importance of shared responsibility for common challenges. A view which takes human relationships seriously, realizing that most life-threatening, life-reducing, life-negating and life-wasting situations and realities in our global community do not happen by chance, fate, personal choice, or God's will -- as some theologians, educators and preachers on AIDS have insisted.
It is now common knowledge that at-risk and vulnerable individuals, families, and communities fail to adopt safe behaviours and practices due to socio-cultural, educational, spiritual, doctrinal, theological, technological, infrastructural and self-governance constraints. This, in turn, brings about and increases their vulnerability by making unsafe practices easy to adopt, popular, and almost routine. A good policy response, legal framework, and religious teaching for HIV/AIDS prevention must bear this in mind.
Indeed, the HIV/AIDS response of any given community stagnates and falls when community leadership and community-level programming cannot quickly recognize and appreciate the nexus between HIV, income inequality and inequity, discriminatory gender norms, disparities and power structures, as well as the link between HIV and life-wasting policies, beliefs, practices, attitudes, budgets, messages, economics, and socio-cultural and political power arrangements.
We are desperately in need of approaches that aim at neutralizing and overcoming stigma through national and global policy formulation, strategic planning, practical programming, human resource training, funding, research, law making, praying, messaging, and communication. Our moral systems, theological doctrines and ethical principles need to transcend individualistic morality that ends blaming at-risk and vulnerable people, instead of supporting them.
So many religious bodies, faith communities and leaders in different places continue to offer great leadership statements and communiqués that inspire hope against the HIV/AIDS epidemic. However, the reality of the continued occurrence of new AIDS-related infections, illnesses, and deaths that are preventable and controllable in principle with the available knowledge and science, continue to highlight the need for reflection and advocacy, so that communiqués and statements become effective policies, laws, budgets and resource allocations against HIV/AIDS-related stigma and discrimination.
If we are to end the AIDS epidemic before it ends us, we must define the evil stigma surrounding this disease, identify its source, and brainstorm on its negative effect on HIV/AIDS. We must convince ourselves and others in our loci of influence that we are battling the AIDS epidemic as a global community. The boundaries between biology, politics, economics, socio-cultural and spiritual values are inevitably blurred, and it is only within that framework of complexity that creative and innovative religious insights, rigorous critiques, and comprehensive, integrated, and non-stigmatizing approaches can play a significant role to intensify HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment, and impact mitigation. This requires us to exercise increased critical self-awareness and social articulation of where we are now, and where we should be in the context of preventable and controllable infections and deaths related to HIV/AIDS. The complex challenges facing us in the HIV/AIDS reality demand complex solutions to reverse SSDDIM, multiply SAVE and end AIDS.
The news of stabilizing -- and better still declining -- levels of new infections in various countries makes the AIDS-fighting water glass seem half full, not half empty. But strategies and measures that still leave thousands of people needlessly infected everyday, and thousands of others needlessly and wastefully dying of infections and illnesses related to AIDS due to stigma, shame, denial, and discrimination, can only be called half measures.