4:00 P.M. ET Dec. 1, 2011
Youth emphasize stigma and discrimination of those living with HIV and AIDS by wearing masks on stage at the 10th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and
the Pacific in Busan, South Korea. UMNS photos by the Rev. Donald E. Messer.
People around the world testify that “worse than having HIV and AIDS is the way people treat you.”
Stigma kills because it prevents people from becoming educated, being tested and receiving life-giving medicine. Those living with HIV infections often experience physical and social isolation, verbal and physical violence, lack of medical care and loss of livelihood.
At the 10th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific in Busan, South Korea, in late summer, there was much discussion about a new United Nations goal that envisions “zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths.”
Recent scientific developments make that goal more probable, but progress in reducing and eliminating stigma has been nearly nonexistent.
The Rev. Youngsook Kang, the United Methodist Denver Metropolitan district superintendent, told the conference about a young Korean woman living with HIV.
“Mary told Kang” “that except for her elderly mother, she had never told another human being about her disease. She lives in a country and culture that stigmatizes and discriminates against persons who are HIV-positive.”
Isolated, alone and voiceless, Mary told Kang that “I feel like I am an island, not a human being.”
Kang said women comprise nearly half of the 33.4 million globally infected with HIV.
“Due to gender norms and inequities,” Kang noted, “women face more discrimination than men.” Comparing Mary to the woman who sought Jesus for healing after having been bent over and ostracized for 18 years, Kang called on religious leaders “to stamp out stigma, preach understanding and lift up those bent over by discrimination.”
During the interfaith AIDS preconference co-sponsored by the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund, a Buddhist nun, Jung-To, who operates a hospice, shared that “women prefer to die alone rather than for people to know they are dying from AIDS.” Because of prejudice, it is nearly impossible to get any Korean to acknowledge publicly being HIV-positive.
Former Singapore Methodist Bishop Yap Kim Hao
confers with the Rev. Youngsook Kang from
Denver and the Rev. Philip Kurvilla from India.
Beginning of a dialogue
A breakthrough at the conference was the beginning of a dialogue among Asian religious leaders and representatives of key populations affected by HIV — men who have sex with men, transgendered persons, commercial sex workers and people who inject drugs.
A young gay man from the Philippines asked, “What is there in your religion that causes you to hate me?”
An HIV-positive leader from Guam described stigma as “when the God in you does not recognize the God in me.”
The Rev. Philip Kuruvilla of the Syrian Orthodox Church in India declared, “If we want to end AIDS, then it is time for a new Christian theology that is accepting of key affected populations.”
An Indonesian woman, Dr. Erlinda Senturias of the Christian Conference of Asia, called on churches to “break the silence on HIV” and “to become HIV- and AIDS-competent.”
Swami Sadyajatha of India called on Hindus to join with other persons of faith “to fight, not only a body of illness, but also a body of stigma.”
The Rev. J. P. Mokgethi-Heath, an HIV-positive Anglican priest from South Africa, urged religious leaders to move beyond a prevention model that only promotes abstinence, being faithful and condom use and adopt a model of safer practices, accessing treatment, voluntary testing and counseling, and empowerment through education. He said that, too often, condom use is recommended in a stigmatizing fashion and “acts as a disincentive to evidence-based prevention.”
‘The courage to speak out’
Ban Ki-moon, secretary-general of the United Nations, recognized that after 30 years of the AIDS pandemic, progress in overcoming the stigma is stymied.
“We can fight stigma. Enlightened laws and policies are key. But it begins with openness, the courage to speak out,” he said. “Schools should teach respect and understanding. Religious leaders should preach tolerance.”
Several scientific developments in the past two years that potentially may help reach the U.N. goals were highlighted at the conference. No “silver bullet” cure or vaccine is yet available, but the arsenal of available approaches to prevention and treatment is expanding.
During conference break, Mynamar pastor reflects using the Upper Room resource, “Prayers of Encouragement for Persons
Living with HIV.”
“Treatment as prevention” strategies with appropriate anti-retroviral drugs can reduce the viral load of a patient to a level where the risk of infecting a sexual partner becomes minimal. Early anti-retroviral treatment can reduce the risk of transmitting HIV by 96 percent. This treatment is particularly hopeful for married women who often are infected by their husbands. The global goal is to expand anti-retroviral treatment from 6.6 million to 15 million people by 2015.
Using two anti-retroviral drugs, a pre-exposure prophylaxis and a post-exposure prophylaxis can reduce significantly the risk of infection. Widespread use of this treatment is problematic, however, because of its high cost and side effects.
Available medicine can nearly eliminate the transmission of HIV from pregnant mothers to newborns. About 370,000 children are born HIV-positive each year. Initial research on a vaginal microbicide gel indicates a woman’s risk of infection could be reduced by 39 percent. Test results in Africa demonstrate that medical male circumcision reduces the risk of HIV infection in men by about 60 percent.
The AIDS pandemic has been a global reality for more than 30 years; more than 30 million are currently HIV-positive and almost 30 million people have died from the disease. Yet, most faith communities won’t spend 30 minutes discussing the topic.
Scientific breakthroughs will flounder and fail, not just because of a lack of political will and inadequate funding, but also because of dehumanizing cultural traditions and religious bigotry.
Since stigma is based primarily on fear, misinformation and moral prejudice, interfaith leaders need to explore their sacred texts and theological resources to transform persons of faith from being condemning to caring, stigmatizing to liberating, fearful to helpful and apathetic to action-oriented.
Learn more about United Methodist views on HIV/AIDS
Donate to the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund and help provide prevention, treatment, care and support.
*Messer is chair of the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund Committee.
News media contact, Maggie Hillery, Nashville, Tenn. (615)-742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.