By Sara Speicher*
“Science is important. But social change is needed, and social change happens with faith–based organizations.”
UNAIDS executive director Michel Sidibé emphasized the importance of UNAIDS’ “bridges” with faith-based organizations in a July 24 dialogue at the interfaith networking zone hosted by the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance (WCC-EAA) at the International AIDS Conference 2018, in Amsterdam.
“It is impossible for [UNAIDS] to reach those who are difficult to reach and really remove the barriers of stigma and discrimination,” he said. “You need people who all their lives have been building bridges between people, and that is who you are.”
The exchange not only confirmed the UN leadership’s commitment to collaboration but also discussed the difficulty of translating the global commitment to the country level.
“We have more than 120 countries where we are present,” said Sidibé. “We need a typology of countries – where you are, where we are – and where we can pick out issues for a practical strategy for how we can engage our country offices.” Bringing faith-based actors to regional meetings with national governments may be a first step, he suggested.
Several areas were highlighted for particular collaboration, such as criminalization of key populations and closing the gap on treatment for children and adolescents.
Sidibé admitted that in addressing the criminalization of key populations, such as men who have sex with men, UNAIDS has in the past had a reactive approach, addressing countries after laws have been proposed. But “naming” populations and highlighting them may have further marginalized them in that context.
“Now we need to say we are all human beings and their dignity must be restored,” he stated.
Fr Rick Bauer, moderating the session, agreed that among religions, “We have different theologies related to the terms, but common to all faiths is the innate dignity of every human being.”
In addition to overcoming stigma and discrimination, Sidibé highlighted access to treatment for children as a particularly vital area for faith advocacy.
“No child should be born with HIV. No child should not have treatment. Treatment gaps are not acceptable,” he said.
“This is your natural terrain, fighting for social justice.”
The interfaith networking zone itself demonstrates the bridges that have been built through dialogue and joint efforts. The interfaith space is connected to a zone on prevention and testing organized by the WCC-EAA, UNAIDS, Unitaid and the World Health Organization, and a number of workshops and events are held jointly.
Collaboration vital, but more bridges are needed
Azza Karam, senior advisor at the United Nations Population Fund, reminded participants of the 21-22 July interfaith conference that collaborative efforts between the United Nations and faith-based and civil society organizations has not been the norm.
“It was this area of HIV and AIDS that prompted the international system to look for non-traditional actors,” she said. “It is the leadership of faith leaders and communities that has led to what we consider now as ‘normal’.”
But just as in the beginning of the HIV response, religious actors had to “look and act critically” within and outside their own communities, faith-based efforts must continue to be self-critical and continue to reach out.
“We have to work across religions,” she said, and be more inclusive “to represent the vast diversity of religious traditions in the world.”
And faith-based organizations need to strengthen engagement with other “rights actors”.
She challenged faith representatives to be “systematic and deliberate” and not to stop. “We have an obligation that this commitment to HIV and AIDS remains central to our commitment to health and social justice.”
Building bridges of faith in the HIV response (WCC press release of 25 July 2018)
Debunking myths and serving all: People on the move and HIV (press release of 23 July 2018)
"We just need to work together" - Children, Adolescents and HIV (press release of 22 July 2018)
Building bridges between the HIV and TB responses (press release of 22 July 2018)
“The materials are us” - Faith building bridges in the HIV response (press release of 21 July 2018)
*Sara Speicher is communication officer for the World Council of Churches.