Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Stigma Kills

Published in The Fiji Times on Wednesday May 19th, 2010

"Stigma is unacceptable, because stigma kills." These were the words of the Governor General of Papua New Guinea, Grand Chief Sir Paulias Matane, two weeks ago, as he launched the Papua New Guinea Christian Leader's Alliance on HIV and AIDS. In his keynote address, Sir Paulias said the launch and the signing of the statement of commitment was a historic event of great magnitude. Sir Paul commended the church leaders for taking the "bold, strong and courageous steps needed against a formidable adversary such as HIV and AIDS." He called on the churches to be the voice of the voiceless and mirrors of God's mercy, saying that the Christian Leaders Alliance was, "a powerful change agent" in removing the stigma and discrimination surrounding HIV and AIDS.

I was fortunate to be present at the launch of the Alliance and the signing of by Church leaders from 19 Christian denominations in Papua New Guinea of a commitment to fully engaging in the response to the HIV and AIDS pandemic in Papua New Guinea. The statement by the Church leaders gives a number of commitments on addressing the stigma and discrimination associated with HIV and AIDS in Papua New Guinea; on providing practical and compassionate pastoral care to people living with HIV and AIDS and on strengthening existing partnerships with both organizations and groups already responding to the HIV and AIDS pandemic in Papua New Guinea including working with religious communities to disseminate accurate information relating to

HIV and AIDS in the areas of prevention, treatment, care and support of people.

The commitment also included, "speaking publicly at every opportunity, particularly from our pulpits, on HIV/AIDS, especially affirming the God-given dignity of all persons, and their right to life, to security, health care and general acceptance, respect, care and love."

A representative of People Living with HIV and AIDS, Peter Momo, shared his story, highlighting the importance of loving care for people living with HIV and AIDS. Mr Momo said more people who were HIV positive would go public with their status if they were encouraged by the care received in their communities. He challenged church leaders to join their congregations in caring for people living with HIV and AIDS.

Head of the Roman Catholic Church in Papua New Guinea, Archbishop John Ribate, who chaired the reference group on the PNG Christian Leaders Alliance on HIV and AIDS said that the churches call to action on HIV and AIDS came from the understanding that no human situation can be considered outside the realm of communities of faith. He added that in Papua New Guinea, Christian communities were the best people to teach people how to prevent the spread of HIV. Speaking on behalf of the members of the Alliance, Archbishop Ribat said, "We pledge to do more. We will spare no effort to break the silence on HIV and AIDS."

There is no doubt that the work that the PNG Christian Leaders' Alliance on HIV and AIDS is a milestone in the Pacific response to the epidemic and an inspirational example as to how churches of different denominations and indeed all religious groups can work together on a life and death issue that affects every community.

However, statement by Grand Chief Sir Paulias Matane, the sharing by Peter Momo and the pledge made on behalf of the Alliance by Archbishop John Ribat, remind us also that stigma and discrimination results in silence, which culminates in ignorance and continues to further stigma and discrimination in a vicious cycle.

Most of us fear rejection. In fact many of us go out of our way to do things or behave in a manner that will prevent our rejection by our friends, family and community. Often this means lying. We lie to others and eventually we lie to ourselves. This can be as simple as lying about our age and our weight, but it also goes far, far deeper as we feel the situation warrants. When we live a life of fear, we do not live at all. When the truth is absent from our lives, it is very difficult for love to be present.

Monday, May 17, was International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia. The UNAIDS executive director Mr Michel SidibÚ, in his statement for this occasion wrote,

"Change is happening: From hate to harmony - From exclusion to inclusion - From stigma to dignity. But not everywhere. Today, nearly 80 countries still have laws prohibiting same-sex behavior. These laws block access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support. I call on all governments to create social and legal environments that ensure respect for human rights. UNAIDS has made protecting and providing HIV services to men who have sex with men and transgender people as a priority area.

"It is my hope that through our collective efforts, we can make homophobia and transphobia history."

A few weeks ago I received an email in response to this column from a man who has struggled to come to terms with his sexual identity because of fear of stigma and discrimination.

He wrote: "My journey as a gay man has been a long and painful one. For the past three years I have been under treatment for clinical depression, on anti-depressant medication and seeing a psychologist. The underlying reason for my depression was that I was not comfortable with my sexuality and hated myself for being gay. Living in a homophobic, conservative country as Fiji did not help the situation. In mid 2009 I finally came to terms with myself and broke the heavy shackles of depression. I came out to my family and friends and have been accepted with open arms and support. I have been lucky but I know others in Fiji have not been. I realise I'm not alone in the world but I do not want anyone else to go through what I did. No one should go through my pain and the world should embrace us with open arms."

May 17, 2010 is the International Day Against Homophobia. This date was chosen because this is the day homosexuality was removed from the International Classification of Diseases from the World Health Organisation on May 17, 1992. The International Day Against Homophobia belongs to no one individual. It's about all people hoping for a prejudice-free world that can provide a place at the table for everyone regardless of their sexual orientation. Inspired by all world theme-days, the day set aside to fight homophobia needs to be appropriated by all of those actively involved in civil society: gay and lesbian community organisations, those organisations focusing on other types of sexual diversity, unions, employers, private businesses, governments, public administration, professional associations, religious groups and all individuals seeking equality.

As I sat in the Raiwai Church on Sunday for the candlelight memorial for those from Fiji, the Pacific and around the world who have died as a result of HIV and AIDS, I thought of the many that died alone because they feared telling someone of their HIV status. So many of us in this world suffer from some sort of stigma and discrimination because of our ethnicity, status, gender, age, upbringing and sexual orientation.

I am reminded that the Christ broke the taboos of His day and reached out in healing and love to those considered unclean and outcast and that we who consider ourselves His Body are called to continue that which he began.

Each human being has the capacity to be an agent of transformation in this world. To transform our fear into love, transform our discrimination, stigmatization and rejection of all people into acceptance, compassion and loving care; to transform our ignorance, our division and our indifference into wisdom, unity and purpose. In doing so, we will turn darkness into light, death into life and despair into hope.

May the rest of your week be blessed with love, light, peace and the strength, courage and wisdom to transform the world, one person at a time.

* Reverend J.S. Bhagwan is a member of the Faculty at Davuilevu Theological College and the Associate Minister of Dudley Methodist Circuit in Suva. This article is the sole opinion of Mr J.S. Bhagwan and not of this newspaper or any organisation that he is affiliated with.

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