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Faith community finds strong tools – yet fault lines – in UN Political Declaration on HIV and AIDS

Faith community finds strong tools – yet fault lines – in UN Political Declaration on HIV and AIDS

©Laurel Sprague

10 June 2016

As a United Nations high-level meeting on ending AIDS led to the adoption of a new political declaration to fast-track progress toward combating HIV and AIDS, the faith community responded, both with words of commendation and a call for changes.

The declaration — issued 8 June — includes a set of time-bound targets over the next five years and a goal to end AIDS as a public health threat by 2030.

Religious leaders and representatives of faith-based organizations commended the declaration for its ambitious targets related to children and HIV. They also noted that, while there is adequate attention to gender inequality, there could be stronger language surrounding this area.

Faith-based response has served a critical, specific role in overcoming HIV and AIDS, especially in addressing social issues, yet many faith-based responders were disappointed in the declaration’s lack of specific mention of faith in the outlined solutions.

One of the biggest faults in the declaration is the lack of language on key populations — a lack so damaging that participants of the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance (WCC-EAA) call it a disgrace for continuing to feed stigma, discrimination and exclusion. They noted that refusing to acknowledge key populations could refuel the AIDS epidemic.

“What we need to do is make sure that the social and environmental factors that create vulnerability will be addressed,” said Rev. Fr JP Mokgethi-Heath, policy advisor on HIV and Theology for the Church of Sweden.

“HIV runs along the fault lines of exclusion – from society and from our theologies. Much is positive in the declaration. But in and of itself, it presents a missed opportunity to really name the fault lines and to really say that, if we are going to meet these targets of 2020 and 2030, a holistic engagement is needed.”

The most important aspect of the declaration is that it is a byproduct of a conversation, said Rev. Edwin Sanders, II, senior servant at the Metropolitan Interdenominational Church in Nashville, Tennessee (USA). “The declaration represents a step. We probably achieved all that we could in the face of radical differences in the way we think. We have to value the conversation.”

The challenge now is to turn words into action, he added. “To this  end, the Key Populations Investment Fund introduced on behalf of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief by Ambassador Birx is to be celebrated.”

Birx is the US global AIDS coordinator and US special representative for global health diplomacy.

The conversation could also be called “a process,” reflected Dr David Barstow, founder of EMPACT Africa. “To me the important thing was the process and what we can see from it. The major issues of dispute were around social issues. And a consensus was reached somewhere in the middle. The fact that social issues dominated the dispute demonstrates the need for strong faith-based leadership and action to address these issues.”

Faith community leaders agreed that the declaration emphasizes gender and children on an unprecedented level.

“It is an astounding win for children,” said Dr Stuart Kean, senior policy adviser on vulnerable children and HIV and AIDS for World Vision International. “We now have a target to get 95% of children living with HIV on treatment by 2018. It is an incredibly ambitious target, in which the faith community has an important role to play.”

With regard to prevention and treatment, Astrid Berner-Rodoreda, HIV policy advisor for the German Protestant development agency Bread for the World, notes:

“It is good to see clear targets mentioned regarding the reduction of new infections and putting people on treatment. But it seems the financial needs were toned down to what is realistically achievable, rather than what we need globally to end AIDS as an epidemic. Whereas the prevention and treatment targets are broken down according to regions and what has to be achieved by 2020, this is not the case for financial commitments. We are left with a lump sum in the declaration which will make it harder to hold governments accountable to their financial commitments.”

Faith groups should hold governments accountable

Even with its weaknesses, the declaration remains a key tool for accountability, said Francesca Merico, HIV campaign coordinator for the WCC-EAA. “Religious leaders don’t read these documents but political leaders do,” she noted. “Religious leaders need to be informed about the declaration so that they can hold the political leaders accountable.”

Faith groups are mentioned only once in the political declaration, and are largely included under the label “civil society.” But a faith perspective is different from a civil society one, said Rev. Phumzile Mabizela, executive director of the International Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV or AIDS.

In addition, she said, “punitive laws were not addressed enough and key populations are not being acknowledged.”

Rev. Dr Nyambura Njoroge, coordinator for the WCC Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiatives and Advocacy (WCC-EHAIA), agreed. “We want to be partners in implementing the declaration and to hold governments accountable. But this is easier if we are mentioned in the declaration.”

There is certainly an imbalance between the impact of the faith community and the treatment of the faith community in the declaration, reflected Jessie Fubara-Manuel, an elder of the Presbyterian Church of Nigeria who also works with WCC-EHAIA. “Faith is not mentioned in the strategies to ending AIDS and yet we are instrumental in these responses. We have a big platform to get the message across.”

As responses continue, Merico reminded her colleagues across the world that it is time to not only become educated about the political declaration but to act on it. “Faith-based organizations and churches have a responsibility to engage themselves in the declaration and hold governments accountable for the steps outlined. In the end, this is not about political language — it’s about human lives, in fact, millions of human lives. We cannot forget that.”

Related links:

UN political declaration on HIV and AIDS

Interfaith Call to Action

Photos from the interfaith prayer on the eve of UN High Level Meeting on AIDS, 2016

Raw video footage of interfaith prayer at HLM 2016 AIDS

Video: WCC general secretary Olav Fykse Tveit's message to UN Interfaith Prayer Service

More information on the High Level Meeting on AIDS and WCC-EAA talking points

More information on the Live the Promise HIV Campaign