In an opening prayer, Dr Manoj Kurian, WCC coordinator of the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, asked for God’s help in overcoming stigma.
“We are told to see the good in each other but still we stigmatize,” Kurian prayed. “We exclude. Forgive us for that. Helps us to design ways with your wisdom to overcome and eradicate stigma.”
Gracia Violeta Ross, programme executive for WCC Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiatives and Advocacy, agreed that, despite the progress related to HIV treatment and response, stigma remains. “Stigma causes a lot of damage to people who need access to prevention and treatment, and we are going to hear some of those stories today,” she said.
Rev. Dr Kenneth Mtata, WCC program director for Public Witness and Diakonia, reflected that the WCC has been at the forefront of work toward eliminating HIV and AIDS stigma and discrimination, “a core area of our intervention,” he said. “The faith sector, with the right information about HIV, can become a source of hope, reconciliation, and education.”.
Mtata said that one of the results of HIV stigma and discrimination is the isolation of people in communities which are already vulnerable. “We have heard many testimonies of people living with HIV who witnessed and succumbed to challenges, some them even ending up in death not because of HIV but because of the chronic depression from stigma and discrimination,” he said.
Dr Umunyana Rugege, from UNAIDS, recounted some of the history of responding to HIV-related stigma, particularly in South Africa. “People living with HIV died without access to treatment and experience violence and were ostracized because of their HIV status,” she said. “Archbishop Desmond Tutu was a powerful voice for human rights and against AIDS denialism.”
The webinar had two panels, one dedicated to the current work on HIV stigma and discrimination from research and operational levels. Speakers challenged the colonial approach to stigma and presented research experience and programmatic models to respond to HIV stigma.
The second panel focused on spiritual learnings and theological reflections. There were questions about the roots of HIV stigma among the faith communities and recommendations for local congregations responding to HIV stigma.
Rev. Canon Gideon Byamugisha spoke about the need to respond to HIV stigma with love. He said, “The problem is not only stigma but the problem is how many people do not have enough love. If we are going to have any debt, let it be the debt of love.” Byamugisha shared how his own experience with HIV, which left him close to death some years ago, changed because his church leadership decide to extend love to him.
The audience also had the opportunity to ask questions and share ideas. Participants asked to continue conversations on HIV stigma and discrimination.