Churches can help alleviate HIV stigma.

Churches can help alleviate HIV stigma.

The language used in many churches still stigmatised people living with HIV, said Pastor Molemoeng Ditoronyane during a recent faith-based and civil society sector launch for the John Taolo Gaetsewe District in the Northern Cape.

Ditoronyane, the sector leader, said to prevent further stigmatisation, church leaders needed to drop the “them” and “us” type of language used to discuss HIV from the pulpit and in the pews.

The call came as the country saw the release earlier this month of the Human Sciences Research Council’s The People Living with HIV Stigma Index, South Africa 2014. The Index found that one-third of people living with HIV experienced stigma from their communities. The report was released during the SA AIDS Conference last week in Durban.

Ditoronyane said from Sunday school teachers and church members to church leaders, everyone in the sector had a role to play in the fight against HIV. But the sector, she said, needed to move away from a language of “condemnation” and, instead, move to one of prevention.

She urged church leaders to preach the principles of “SAVE”.

”When we reject or condemn people because that do not fit in with our rules and ideas, we act against the guidelines of God’s unconditional love”

“S – Safe(r) practices; A – Access to treatment; V – Voluntary Counselling and Testing, E – Empowerment. This acronym captures the multi-faceted approach and the fact that we need interventions at different levels to help. That is our whole purpose – we are here to SAVE lives through education and by providing skills.”

Safe(r) practices, she said, included all avoidance and risk reduction strategies such as abstinence, delaying the first sexual experience, mutual faithfulness in marriage, correct and consistent use of condoms and the reduction of number of sexual partners.

To further help alleviate the stigma, Church leaders living with HIV could consider disclosing their status, she said.

Ditoronyane said a positive attitude toward all people was vital in the Faith-Based Organisations’ (FBOs) fight against HIV. “There is no place for judgment. When we reject or condemn people because that do not fit in with our rules and ideas, we act against the guidelines of God’s unconditional love,” she said.

One of the number of challenges within the sector was FBOs unwillingness to discuss condom use as well as church members’ false belief that HIV was a disease caused by promiscuity.

To this end FBOs needed to urgently educate themselves about HIV so that they could provide the correct information to the communities.

When churches have conferences, instead of pretending HIV does not exist, they could make condoms and HIV counselling and testing available, said Ditoronyane.

A move in the right direction in HIV prevention would be to have information in relation to HIV readily available at churches. And within the churches, said Ditoronyane, support groups should be established to help those affected and infected by HIV.

Churches could also establish food security programmes to address the challenges of poverty and establish social responsibility programmes to help curb social ills and injustices.

While there were many challenges in the sector’s fight against HIV there had already been some strides in the right direction. For one, said Ditoronyane, South African churches were now responding to HIV and AIDS programmes and allowing people living with HIV to come and share their personal experiences.

FBOs had historically played an important role in delivering health and social services in developing countries but, said Ditoronyane, there was little research into their role in HIV prevention and care, particularly in African countries.