Time to take action for World Aids Day
2016-12-01 15:25:43 -
Human Rights
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Richard Carson

The first of December is World Aids Day, when the global community reflects on the story and impact of this extraordinary pandemic. Over the past 35 years, lives have been lost, treatments have emerged that have saved the lives of millions, stigma and discrimination have remained powerful and prevalent and courage has abounded among people living with HIV. All regions of the world have been impacted, no less than the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, where two-thirds of those living with HIV reside.

But HIV and Aids have impacted Ireland, too. In this country we currently see over nine new HIV diagnoses every week, and 2015 showed the highest level of new infections on record. Much of this is down to increased testing, but there remains significant gaps between those living with HIV and those aware of their status.

There is excellent treatment for HIV that is significantly increasing longevity. But it can only impact if those living with HIV know their status following testing.

Research by Public Health England showed that black African men who are living with HIV are twice as likely not to have tested as their white counterparts. Fear of the HIV test can run deep, with societal stigma having a powerful hold. But it is vital that it is challenged by all sectors of society, from Government to local communities to faith communities.

In this regard, Tunde Adeboye-Oke, national pastor of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, has played his part by stating: “Why people have the virus, how they got infected, is inconsequential. It is not our place to judge; it is our place to show compassion.”

While all sectors of society must challenge HIV-related stigma, central to this battle is the role of those living with HIV. Pastor Elizabeth Kalonga is such a person and is one of a handful of church leaders in the UK and Ireland who speak openly about their HIV status.

Interviewed in Mambo magazine, she addressed the fears that churches might have in addressing the condition: “Talking about HIV is not about the church promoting sex, but about promoting health. People who go to church also have sex and we would like to ensure that people do so with a full understanding of how to protect themselves and others from HIV.”
On her work with churches, she says: “We have achieved so many amazing things, but I am most grateful that we are gradually seeing more churches opening their doors to us and listening to what we have to say about HIV. The more churches that engage with us the faster we can make a difference. To top it all off, many people are now getting tested for HIV after we visit – often at HIV testing clinics held in the churches.”

My own organisation, Acet Ireland, is one agency engaging in this important work with faith communities across the country to respond to HIV. We train church leaders not just on HIV but on the challenges in mission that come with engaging with the margins of Irish society. Improving listening skills and exploring creative approaches to evangelism can mean as much as learning about HIV testing and prevention.

When asked about stumbling blocks for churches in addressing HIV, Pastor Kalonga said: “Some find it hard to engage with the work on HIV because they have other priorities that they feel link directly to the spiritual work they deliver. Also, many churches are not well resourced and leaders are often very busy trying to keep churches afloat, so the work around HIV becomes less of a priority.”

I have seen this in our own work, and we try to work within and through rather than around the challenges that leaders face in growing and sustaining their congregations. In fact, we believe that addressing HIV well lies at the heart of churches demonstrating a Kingdom of God expression to Irish society.

One local example is our partnership with Bishop Amos Ngugi of Voice of New Communities. In the north-east inner city of Dublin you will find a hub of leaders exploring HIV, mental health, listening skills, domestic violence and more as well as being a source of mutual and prayerful support. Also, from listening to those we train, we have identified the need to support parents as they raise their teenage children in a vastly different cultural context to that in which they grew up themselves.

So this World Aids Day, take action. Engage in your own personal or corporate act of remembrance for those who have died. Go get tested. Break the silence that exists across all sectors of Irish society so as to combat the ongoing stigma and discrimination

For a list of venues offering HIV tests in Ireland, check out the work of the agencies of HIV Services Ireland at www.hivservices.ie

Richard Carson is CEO of Acet Ireland, an interdenominational Christian response to HIV/Aids in Ireland.
TAGS : Richard Carson World Aids Day December Irish society Ireland Mambo Magazine Global community
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