Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Weaving a Safety Net for HIV and AIDS

Published in the "Off the Wall Column", Fiji Times 1st December 2010.

Today is World AIDS Day. Last week I highlighted the events taking place to commemorate this important date. This morning there will be a march through Suva, followed by activities at the Fiji School of Nursing.

Tomorrow, December 2, will be the launch of the Pacific Conference of Churches Hardship Fund for People Living with HIV and AIDS and a fundraising concert at the Suva Civic Auditorium, featuring the Oceania Dance Group and the young singing sensations of Fiji – collectively known as HOPE-Fiji. The programme kicks off at around 6.45pm.

On Friday the Engaging Men and Boys Advocates of the Foundation of the Peoples of the South Pacific International will be organizing an Accapella competition to promote gender equality, more importantly Against Violence Against Women, as a method of preventing the spread of HIV and AIDS. The Accapella (groups and individuals singing without musical accompaniment) competition will be held at the University of the South Pacific’s U8 Lecture Theatre at 7pm.

The activities conclude with a STOP HIV Walk and sports day on Saturday 4th December at the Victoria Tennis Courts on Knollys and Disreli Streets.

The to key areas of focus in the response to HIV and AIDS continues to be prevention of HIV infection and care and support for People Living with HIV and AIDS.

The Report of the Commission on AIDS in the Pacific, presented to the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon in 2009, stated that:

“Without the involvement of churches the response to HIV across the Pacific would not have been as strong as it is...Within the theological bounds of their various faiths, the churches and FBOs have been and continue to be prominent in driving HIV responses.... Pacific churches, fundamental as they are to Pacific societies, are powerful social institutions. Christianity is interwoven into almost all aspects of Pacific societies and daily life, and elements of Pacific traditions and culture are blended into all aspects of church structures and services”

In an open letter to All HIV positive people in our Oceania Region, the General Secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches, Fe’iloakitau Kaho Tevi wrote that, December 1 commemorates World AIDS Day, and is an important opportunity to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS, remember friends who have passed on and focus attention on issues that continue to prevent people living with HIV (PLHIV) from enjoying the same basic human rights as everyone else in the community.

“As church and community leaders across the region, we recognize the important role we have in

supporting the concerns of people living with HIV in their country and in their church community,” wrote Mr. Tevi.

Speaking on behalf of the church leaders of Oceania, Mr Tevi expressed the Church’s solidarity and support of, positive people who are experiencing any isolation, pain or hardship due to the growing HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Oceania region.

“We strive to ensure that their concerns are raised in every forum, and that these concerns are addressed at the community and regional level. We demonstrate ongoing commitment to advocating for an Oceania region that is free of stigma and discrimination towards people living with HIV, so that the quality of people’s lives, their ability to access treatment, care and support and to contribute and be active within their community are upheld.”

The letter concludes by saying that the Church, “in principle and in practice is determined to see that church leaders across the region commit to and support the concerns of PLHIV at the Pacific Conference of Churches to ensure positive people the same right to live a life of positive prevention, health and dignity.”

HIV and AIDS champions from all sections of society have applauded the recent broadening of views in the debate and discussion on the use of condoms in prevention of HIV and AIDS since Pope Benedict XVI comments that using condoms may sometimes be justified to stop the spread of HIV.

At this year’s Pacific Church Leader’s meeting in Auckland, the moderator of the Pacific Conference of Churches, Bishop Apimeleki Qiliho said that the response to HIV and AIDS both in terms of prevention and care for People Living with HIV and AIDS should be grounded in something deeper than church policies – it should be grounded in our Christianity. Explaining himself further through the concept of ecumenical netting, Bishop Qiliho said that all Christians, regardless of denomination had a duty to ensure that each child of God had “life and life to the full”. (John 10:10b)

“The net,” according to Bishop Qiliho, “ensures that no one gets left behind, even if they do not belong to our community of faith.”

At a recent seminar on HIV and AIDS in Australia a member of the UNAIDS Global Panel on AIDS and Human Rights, Justice Michael Kirby, said that with 2.7 million new HIV infections every year and budget cuts for HIV treatment looming, religious leaders who followed the scriptures word-for-word and hence stigmatised sex work and homosexuality were unethical and are an obstacle to HIV prevention.

“Religious leaders must read the texts metaphorically instead of literally and adapt them in light of new facts and scientific evidence. They must also go back to the essence of religion- kindness and love,” Justice Kirby said.

HIV-positive Fijian Temo Sasau doesn’t believe the scriptures are out-dated, but agrees there are problems with the way an individual interprets Biblical text.

He said “every word in the scriptures needs to be taken in its context” and agrees some religious leaders forget that the “bottom line is love”.

He recalls talking to a church congregation on an island in 2008, when one of the leaders requested a list of names and photos of all the people living with HIV in the community to be posted on the wall of the local store.

When the church leader discovered Sasau was HIV-positive, he cried after realising he was discriminating against the very person talking to him.

“Sex is seen as sin, and therefore every person infected with HIV is perceived a sinner and forced to repent, before being accepted back in the community,” Sasau adds.

In the Pacific, there have been around 30,000 reported cases of people living with HIV, though real numbers indicate the figure could be higher than 54,000.

Your attitude, your response could be the catalyst in turning the tide or opening the floodgate to this epidemic.

Tickets for the Hardship Grant Fundraising Concert on Thursday night and the Accapella Competition on Friday night are only $5.00. It is a way of showing your support for those working to educate our people on the dangers of HIV and AIDS and your commitment to provide a caring community for people living with HIV and AIDS.

May the rest of your week be blessed with light, love and hope.

“Be Still, Stand in Love, Pay Attention.”

* 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 Rev. J.S. Bhagwan and not of this newspaper or any organisation that he is affiliated with. Email:

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