Government’s slow response to the reduction of mother-to-child transmission of HIV had been well-publicised, but the alarmingly slow response of faith based communities to HIV/AIDS had received less attention, Anglican Archbiship Njongonkulu Ndungane told a gathering of religious leaders yesterday (Monday).
The leaders from nine countries in southern Africa have come together in Johannesburg to find new ways of meeting the challenge of HIV/AIDS.
Ndungane said “I am convinced that our first step as leaders is to acknowledge our sin of omission. In this instance it is a sin of grand proportions.”
“Too often the church has chosen condemnation and judgement, rather than mercy and compassion.”
Africa was experiencing a crisis in leadership, he said. There was a cry for new models of leadership in Africa not only in the church but in organisations, institutions and communities.
“Leadership needs to have the capacity to accept responsibility for society’s condition, as opposed to laying blame,” he said.
Too often leadership was involved in diverting attention away from the most important issues and on in-fighting, rather than on exposing the truth, he said.
Ndungane highlighted the role that faith-based organisations could play in reducing the stigma and discrimination surrounding the disease. Often people who knew they were HIV positive did not seek medical care because they were afraid of the stigma that would follow if people found out.
Silence permitted inaction and was the breeding ground for stigma, and the real challenge to faith-based organisations was to break the silence, he said. While AIDS was spread largely through sex – poverty, ignorance and profiteering were equally strong in driving the pandemic. Reaching deep into communities to fight AIDS would not be an easy task, and in many instances, such as in sex education for the youth, it was going to have to cut across tradition and culture, he said.
The focus of the gathering, which is funded by USAid, is on providing care and support for people affected by AIDS and to fight discrimination. The ability of faith-based organisations to exert a powerful influence on the priorities of national leadership are also highlighted. The meeting is part of a series of interventions which began with a training course in Uganda last October.
The delegates said that since their last meeting they had encountered many barriers, mostly in the attitudes of priests. The entrenched culture of silence on AIDS was the most important obstacle, with myths and ignorance also playing their part.
Despite this the group had managed to introduce a number of initiatives and to widen the network.