Washington, DC, 25 July 2012 – A White House forum yesterday between administration officials and faith leaders took stock of the faith-based response to HIV and explored partnerships between faith communities and governments to uphold dignity and justice in the context of the HIV epidemic.
Leaders expressed appreciation for the U.S. government’s bipartisan commitment to the global and national HIV response, and administration officials highlighted the services, reach and leadership of the faith community. But issues related to patent barriers to treatment and anti-stigma advocacy within faith communities were also raised as challenges that must be addressed.
“Pharmaceuticals alone will not bring about an end to the HIV pandemic, and the faith-based community has a critical role in the response through promoting social opinions and community attitudes that either enhance and enable the response or, we have to admit, impede the response,” stated Peter Prove, executive director of the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance.
He described faith-based communities as providing the critical “software” of the HIV response.
“We want to walk with you in the development of the ‘software’ response,” Prove said, emphasizing the need to work with partners who can support and enable the faith community to change attitudes and increase services.
Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, deputy executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), emphasized that faith leaders are “critical agents of change.” Faith is an important part of the lives of most people and faith-based organizations provide up to 70 percent of basic health services in some countries, especially among hard-to-reach communities.
Yet Albrectsen also warned that “ignorance, prejudice and corruption can subsume the mantel of religion” and in such an atmosphere, individuals, especially women, will not be open or seek treatment because they fear judgment.
“There should not be any table talk about HIV and AIDS in this country and around the world without voices of faith being around the table,” said Rev Edwin Sanders, senior servant and founder of the Metropolitan Interdenominational Church in Nashville, Tennessee.
Sanders recognized that the language of faith is sometimes foreign to science, but solutions, he said, “come about when people bring different language, different perspectives, different understandings to the table.”
Partnerships across sectors are key, agreed Joshua Dubois, director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships: “The path to an AIDS-free generation is paved with partnerships.”
Yet, Gracia Violeta Ross, national chair emeritus of the Bolivian Network of People Living with HIV, observed that the partnership between the US government and faith-based organizations is one between “the giant” and “the kid.” A more equal partnership would be one in which the different members bring different abilities and perspectives, “but have the same goal–universal access to HIV prevention and care for all,” Ross stated.
Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service, recognized that in a partnership with government “we have to carry our own weight”, which requires that faith communities raise their voices.
But it also means that both government and faith communities recognize that solutions come from the people themselves. Partnership is “not the faith leader just preaching, it is listening to the congregation,” she noted.
“Unless we let them speak and say what will make a difference in their lives, we will not have health services and support that will be successful in reaching an AIDS-free generation,” Messinger said.
Citing the impact on Latin America, Ross emphasized that the inclusion of medicines in free trade agreements between the United States and Central America have not helped in terms of treatment for people living with HIV, and called for any free trade agreement with India to not include medicines like any other commodity.
“I agree we have to patent many things, for example this podium, my shoes, a gel for hair loss, you can patent those; but please don’t patent medications that are needed for people in the developing world!” she stated.
She noted that advocacy around intellectual property rights are essential for access to affordable medicines, and expressed the hope that the US government would encourage pharmaceutical companies to join the Medicines Patent Pool.
Messinger acknowledged the advocacy role faith-based organizations have on issues such as the Medicines Patent Pool.
“Too often the faith-based services that are funded by governments are seen as only providing love and care and not speaking for dignity and not speaking for justice,” she stated. “It is our job as faith-based communities to provide individuals with dignity, to demand justice for every single person in our community, to support people in their own battles against stigma and for justice. To be a large and loud voice in telling government what else needs to be done.”
Sanders acknowledged, too, that faith representatives, carry their own “isms and phobias” – “perspectives and attitudes that compromise our ability to deal effectively with the diseases.” These are issues that the faith communities have to deal with so that they don’t continue to be part of the problem. “It’s not just about the them, the they and the those. It is also about the we, the our and the us,” he stated.
Faghmeda Miller, founder of Positive Muslims in South Africa, challenged government and religious leaders alike to be more visible that they are living with or affected by HIV and to give more anti-stigma messages and public encouragement for testing, so that people living with HIV were not always “in the back”.
“Yes we can work together as faith leaders,” she acknowledged, but “if you don’t know your own house, how can you go out and work with other people?”
Canon Gideon Byamugisha from Uganda, regional representative of the International Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV or AIDS (INERELA+) recounted the progress that has been made among faith communities over the last decade in having the language, the information and the visibility of religious leaders living with HIV to respond appropriately.
“Now the good news is we have the language, we have the theology, we have the strategic framework, we have the monitoring tools. What we are looking for is partnerships – from governments, from intergovernmental agencies – to be user-friendly with faith based organizations,” said Byamugisha.
Government and donor commitment to funding a sustained response was highlighted. Finola Finnan, program lead for HIV and Gender Equality at Trocaire, and chairperson of the Catholic HIV/AIDS Network emphasized the high standard of care offered by Catholic organizations that “takes account of the whole person” along with the commitment of the Church to strive for social justice. She questioned the donor-driven calls to do “more with less” and stated that the reality was “doing less with less” which “is not a viable option if we want an AIDS-free generation”.
Gayle Smith, Senior Director for Democracy and Development, National Security Staff, The White House, stated, “We may be the world’s largest donor, but we are not the only leader” and asked forum participants that, while they continue to advocate for more US funding, “urge other countries to step up to the plate.”
She encouraged participants, too, to figure out how to replicate this model that shows if differences can be put aside and there is agreement that every person can have fundamental dignity. “Together we can do just about anything”
Jan Beagle, Deputy Executive Director, UNAIDS, reaffirmed partnerships that address the drivers of HIV pandemic to reach the goal of “the last one” – a symbolic panel in the AIDS Memorial Quilt that will be, by the end of the conference, the only panel left on the Mall.
Pernessa Seele, Founder and Executive Director, The Balm in Gilead, closed the forum, recalling the faith that grounds religious communities and leads them to work for love and justice. “This amazing grace is for everyone. Our calling is to manifest wherever we are that amazing grace.”
Photo: The Rev. Edwin Sanders (left), senior servant and founder of the Metropolitan Interdenominational Church in Nashville, Tennessee, speaks at the White House Event for Religious Leaders. (Paul Jeffrey/EAA)