I met with Carina Winberg of Tearfund and Geoff Foster of Firelight Foundation last week and had a very useful discussion on how to ensure that Faith Based Organisations (FBOs) are linked in to the network of NGOs and civil society organisations who are supporting the national response to HIV/AIDS.
Tearfund are currently conducting a survey to establish peoples views on the role that Faith Based Organisations have to play in health and HIV and AIDS prevention, treatment and care. The questionnaire will help Tearfund to develop a strategic plan for how Churches and Christian based organisations can best be supported to help national efforts to combat HIV/AIDS. The questionnaire developed by Tearfund seeks to understand peoples perceptions of FBOs, and how they think the Church and FBOs attitudes and approaches have either benefited or, on occasions, had a negative impact on the international response to the crisis. It was a timely visit by Carina and Geoff as there was quite a bit of media publicity surrounding the Pope's comments on condoms . Geoff, as have many other commentators on the news story, helpfully tried to put the Pope's comments in context, saying that the messages on fidelity and abstinence are important messages, and that condoms alone will not solve the problem of HIV/AIDS in Africa. DFID's position is that condoms are an essential part of the international and national response to the HIV epidemic, and that we must give people the ability to reduce their risk of infection whatever their personal choice about sexual behaviour. In Mozambique, where multiple concurrent partnerships are one of the driving forces of the epidemic, then reducing numbers of sexual partners, delaying age of first sexual contact and promoting abstinence are all important parts of the national response. However, without condoms, rates of infection would almost certainly be higher than the current national prevalence of 16% of the sexually active age group.
All Faiths have an important role to play in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Religious leaders should use their voice to inform people about HIV/AIDS and offer advice on prevention. They also have an important role in ensuring that people who are infected with HIV/AIDS are not stigmatised, and are supported and cared for. Where Faith prevents the promotion of condoms, it remains important not to stigmatise those who carry or use them.
The Pope's comments may have some useful benefits, in terms of the debate that they have stimulated. The more we talk about HIV/AIDS and about sexuality and disease prevention in public forum, making effective use of the media to increase awareness of the issue, the nearer we will get to ensuring that everyone has access to accurate information and the knowledge needed to minimise personal risk of infection, and to abolish the stigmatisation of HIV positive individuals.