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Faith communities discuss the way forward in the HIV response

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More than a thousand people of faith working in the HIV field recently came together for an online HIV interfaith conference, Resilience & Renewal: Faith in the HIV Response.

“More than ever, it is important that faith communities and leaders are strong voices for people. This means, in a time of COVID-19, recognizing that a call to action on COVID-19 and a call to action on HIV should be complementary and synergistic—they are not in opposition to each other. We will rely on faith partners to be strong and true voices of support for people living with HIV,” said Shannon Hader, UNAIDS Deputy Executive Director, Programme.

During the three-day meeting, the participants identified joint action to address some of the challenges and emerging issues related to the achievement of the 2020 and 2030 HIV targets. All people of faith were invited to sign the online declaration of commitment to the HIV response: Our Promise to Action—Resilience & Renewal: Faith in the HIV Response.

The conference also saw the launch of the 13 Million Campaign to engage faith leaders, individuals and communities to promote access to health services by the 13 million children, women and men living with HIV who are not yet on antiretroviral therapy.

Winnie Byanyima, the Executive Director of UNAIDS, reminded the participants that the nearly four decades-long HIV response has taught us that global solidarity is essential to overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic. Like HIV, this new pandemic is not just a disease, it has social, economic, ethical and political implications on society and only a multisectoral approach, including the involvement of faith communities, can help the world to overcome it.

Jessie Milan Jr, the Chief Executive Officer of AIDS United, highlighted the increased vulnerability of marginalized communities to both epidemics. Racial injustices have compounded the suffering. “When our faith in systems and society is shaken, our faith community is needed even more,” he said.

Thabo Makgoba, a South African Archbishop, noted that religious institutions are serving the vulnerable, especially at the national level, and are providing a substantial proportion of services and cooperating actively with government agencies. He proposed that 5% of global funding for HIV be channelled through faith-based initiatives.

Katy Godfrey, from the United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), shared her experience in providing HIV services to 15.7 million people, in close collaboration with governments and faith communities. She reiterated that services could only be effective if they are underpinned by a learning process that listens to community needs, and works with them, that is responsive to convenient client-centred care and that does not neglect care for the carers.

Good practices by faith groups that ensure the provision of HIV services during COVID-19 were shared. The conference was also an opportunity for faith groups to learn from the science, research and information presented at the 2020 International AIDS Conference. Narratives shared by people engaged in the HIV response spurred discussions and presented opportunities to learn from their experiences and journeys. Songs, prayers and petitions from children challenged the current paucity in the HIV response for children and adolescents.

Representatives of community groups played a major role in the conference.

Nine women with disabilities from Nigeria from the BOLD (Beautiful Outstanding Ladies with Disabilities) Hearts Network participated. Ndifreke Andrew-Essien, the Coordinator of the BOLD Hearts Network, said, “It was wonderful to listen to and see how persons with disabilities living with HIV were building even more resilience and inspiring many. We truly benefitted from the conference. It is our hope that in future our deaf constituents can participate through sign language interpretation.”

“I was particularly impressed by the good practices from Kenya, especially those of linking peers who have achieved viral suppression. The use of celebration as a strategy, rather than punitive, is something which inspired me,” said Aarti Parab, one of six adolescents living with HIV who were facilitated to attend the conference.

A consortium of organizations from several faith traditions and people living with HIV from around the world organized the meeting, which was held from 22 to 24 September, with the support of the UNAIDS/PEPFAR Faith Initiative.