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Addressing stigma and discrimination through faith leaders

Monday, 14 July, 2014

The 20th International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2014) is being held this year in Melbourne, Australia, from July 20-25th. The biannual conference is one of the most important events in the HIV calendar, and gives an opportunity for a diverse range of voices to come together, share experiences and drive forward positive change for the HIV epidemic. This guest blog series will include reflections from key organisations working in the field of HIV - the HIV/AIDS Alliance, STOPAIDS, CAFOD and Save the Children. The third blog in the series comes from Jane Lennon, HIV Knowledge Management Coordinator at CAFOD.

Jane Lennon, HIV Knowledge Management Coordinator, CAFOD

Stigma and discrimination remain the greatest challenges for people living with and affected by HIV and AIDS. They are also two of the biggest obstacles to accessing prevention, care and support services.

In response to this challenge CAFOD, in partnership with GNP+, created the Stigma Reduction Initiative (SRI): a programme to reduce stigma and discrimination within communities by working through faith leaders. This was a three year pilot programme with existing CAFOD partner organisations in Ethiopia, Zambia and Kenya, with technical support from National People Living with HIV (PLHIV) Networks, building on the implementation of the People Living with HIV Stigma Index. GNP+ adapted their Stigma Index tool to include questions specifically related to faith leaders and faith communities in order to collaborate with CAFOD on the SRI.

Faith leaders are often criticised for being ‘part of the problem’ when it comes to HIV related stigma and discrimination. But while some faith leaders have indeed hindered work on HIV and AIDS and contributed to stigma and discrimination, there is also a great opportunity to reduce stigma through working with faith leaders due to their ability to influence community members. In many communities people’s attitudes, beliefs and actions are shaped by their faith, and so the faith leader of that community can therefore greatly influence attitudes towards HIV and has the potential to bring about change.

There are two main elements to the SRI: the Stigma Reduction Survey and the Faith Leader Strategies. The survey was conducted annually and involved people living with HIV and people affected by HIV interviewing their peers about their experiences of HIV-related stigma and discrimination. The findings from the survey were shared with faith leaders (of various different faiths, depending on the location) and people living with HIV, who developed action plans to reduce stigma and discrimination. Faith leaders then implemented these plans over the following 12 month period, before another survey round was completed. The process of the survey itself was found to have a big impact and it was reported to be particularly empowering for both those living with and affected by HIV to be interviewed by someone living with HIV.

An external evaluation of the project states how the involvement of faith leaders in the SRI has helped to transform their knowledge, attitudes and practices relating to HIV. Due to the power and influence they have, this transformation is starting to have a wider impact on the knowledge, attitudes and practices of their communities.

“Before SRI faith leaders had fear even to greet people living with HIV, to sit with them, to eat together or even to let them kiss the cross. The faith leaders would discriminate and give bad information – saying that HIV was a result of sin. Now, after SRI, faith leaders are talking about ART, telling us we don’t need to fast, giving us good counselling and we can live like others live. There is a good change in their attitudes.” (PLHIV, male survey respondent, Ethiopia)

CAFOD staff will, alongside GNP+, be presenting a poster on the SRI at AIDS 2014 (July 22, Exhibition hall 12.30-2.30, TUPE273), and alongside this we have produced a technical learning booklet that outlines the process and provides guidance for replicating in the future.