International: Asia's religious leaders tackle HIV & AIDS

Amana Media Initiative
"According to the Buddhist Leadership Initiative, almost 30 percent of monks in China, Cambodia and Laos have received training on HIV & AIDS."
"The Korean superstar RAIN was roped in by the Christian relief group World Vision last year to help promote awareness of HIV & AIDS, especially among youth. Over in Fiji, people living with HIV can get internship opportunities at the World Council of Churches (WCC) in the Pacific.
These are just two examples of how faith-based groups are increasingly addressing social issues like HIV & AIDS, which were often thought of - and are still viewed by some - as a curse that befalls ‘bad' people.

This engagement in social issues was the theme that ran through a conference held in Bangkok in January, called ‘Inter-Faith Consultation on Children and HIV', organised by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) East Asia and Pacific, and attended by more than 80 religious leaders and participants.

Despite fundamental differences, Buddhist monks, Christian ministers and Muslim clerics agreed that their involvement in efforts to fight the pandemic was a key part of their ties with their communities. After all, religion shapes culture and values for many in this region.

In the case of the WCC's internship program in Suva, council executive secretary Fe'iloakitau Kaho Tevi said" "This sends out a strong message that positive people can be good workers and that you don't have to be afraid of working with them."

HIV & AIDS are not just health crises, but have social and moral elements as well. "This is where religious leaders can be powerful agents of change with their enormous influence in reducing stigma and discrimination," reckoned Simone Charnley, regional coordinator Asian Muslim Action Network's (AMAN) HIV & AIDS program.

According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS), some 4.9 million people were living with HIV in Asia in 2007. Of these, 440,000 became infected that year. Some 300,000 people also died from AIDS-related illnesses in 2007.

In the Asia-Pacific, four countries have a generalised HIV epidemic-Thailand, Cambodia, Burma and Papua New Guinea.

In Cambodia, where the adult HIV prevalence rate now stands at 1.6 percent, Buddhist monks are quite involved in supporting those living with the pandemic. Apart from two hotline numbers run by Buddhist monks to answer queries on the pandemic, there is also access to healthcare, the provision of income-generating activities and food, shelter and school materials to children, as well as meditation and counselling services.

According to the Buddhist Leadership Initiative, almost 30 percent of monks in China, Cambodia and Laos have received training on HIV & AIDS. These programs help them in promoting greater involvement in society of those living with the pandemic, giving them a sense of normalcy and addressing stigma and discrimination.

At the same time, Captain John Kerari of the Salvation Army Papua New Guinea Church Partnership Program stressed that HIV & AIDS programs by faith-based organisations were by themselves inadequate-that governments needed to be proactive and lead in managing the pandemic. Papua New Guinea registers the highest adult HIV prevalence of 1.8 percent in Asia and the Pacific, according to UNAIDS.

For his part, Lawrence Maund of The Sangha Metta Project, which engages Buddhist monks in HIV & AIDS prevention and care, says that particular focus must be given to young people and educating them about behaviour needed to prevent HIV & AIDS. In line with this, he questioned the absence of youth leaders at the UNICEF conference, which was supposed to focus on children.

He encouraged others to explore the potential of youth leaders in reaching out to their peers. "Young people will talk to you, but they might not open up to you. They were not born during the HIV & AIDS crisis (mid-1980s), but were born into a time of complacency," he remarked.

Datuk A Vaithilingam, president of the Malaysia Hindu Sangam, vice president of the Malaysian AIDS Council and former president of the Malaysian Consultative Council on Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism, said he saw a lack of programs for Hindus living with HIV & AIDS outside of India. He called for greater involvement of Hindu-based groups in addressing the pandemic.

Tevi, a WCC member from Fiji, voiced his concern about the effectiveness of responses by different religious groups to HIV & AIDS. "My fear is that we have become a ‘band aid organisation'. We recognize the effects of HIV & AIDS, but do not address the root cause of the problem," he said.

Maund said that giving HIV & AIDS a public face did make a difference. During the Loy Krathong festival in the northern Thai province of Chiang Mai in November 2007, he said, the beauty queen on the float that weaved through the city streets was HIV-positive. She used the occasion to assert her rights. She was part of the Chiang Mai Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS.

Maund recalls that seeing this, "this man (from the crowd) approached one of the paraders and asked if they were really HIV-positive. He said, ‘I have HIV too, can I join you?' That was the first time this man came out of his shell.""

By: Jaime Lim / IPS Asia-Pacific

10 February 2008

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