The crucial role of religious leaders in the HIV response
I will be attending and speaking at a general assembly meeting for the International Network of Religious Leaders living and affected by HIV which will take place over the course of two days. INERELA+ is an international, interfaith network of religious leaders – both lay and ordained, women and men – who are living with, or are personally affected by HIV.
INERELA evolved out of the African Network of Religious leaders living with HIV (ANERELA) which originated in East Africa in the early 2000s, and was founded by some of the most committed and influential people on the scene, such as Canon Gideon Byamugisha of Uganda and Rev Jape Heath originally from Namibia but based in South Africa. The key idea was to tap into the unique role and authority that religious leaders play in providing moral and ethical guidance within communities, using that to contribute in a productive way to the HIV response; their public opinions can influence entire nations. INERELA+ looks to empower its members to use their positions within their faith communities in a way that breaks the silence, challenges stigma and prejudice, and provides delivery of evidenced-based prevention, care, and treatment services.
Even as someone who works for a faith-based organisation, I still encounter many people who believe that faith leaders are more of a hindrance than a partner in the HIV response. I keep being asked if the work we are doing to help faith leaders understand the facts of HIV, and of course passing on the correct information to their congregations, is really working. I respond that we have made, and continue to make, a lot of progress.
The basic fact is that many religious leaders are vital partners in the HIV response, and dismissing them out of hand is ultimately a bad move. The sphere of influence of religious leaders on their communities continues to surge rather than diminish, particularly in Africa. In fact, the majority of religious leaders I have encountered remain engaged and want very much to be a part of the HIV solution rather than a challenge, but they are often either dismissed or not given the opportunity.
It is essential that religious leaders are perceived as fundamental partners in the fight against HIV, and are supported to do their work – in many ways, including economically – and unless they are seen as true and committed partners we will never be able to talk realistically about zero infections in communities.
INERELA+ will be discussing what they have achieved in the last decade, and what new opportunities are out there to help them to make a much bigger impact.
Winnie Ssanyu Sseruma is an Advocacy and Networks Officer for the Community Health & HIV team at Christian Aid. Winnie has also been living with HIV for almost 25 years.Tagged in: Africa, AIDS, Canon Gideon Byamugisha, faith, health, HIV, INERELA, International AIDS Conference, International Network of Religious Leaders, prejudice, Religion, Rev Jape Heath, stigma
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