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Media Feature: Launching Intergenerational Safe Spaces to Discuss HIV, Human Rights and Reproductive Health

8. November 2013

    By Gregg Brekke

    Access to reproductive health care and protection from HIV remains an elusive goal for many women around the world. Sexual violence, cultural and religious stigmatization, and the silence that surrounds issues of sexuality and reproduction have created environments where women and girls, in particular, feel ill-prepared or too frightened to address the situations and choices that affect their sexual and reproductive lives. As a result, they are unable to protect themselves and others from disease and harm.


    The need is especially profound for the generation of young people that is now reaching reproductive maturity, born with HIV through mother-to-child transmission or living in regions of high HIV prevalence.  The need for accompaniment, education and strategies to safeguard their sexual and reproductive health and well-being is a life giving necessity for these young people.


    Responding to these needs, the World YWCA, the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiative in Africa, and the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, are collaborating in a three-year initiative to encourage dialogue, education and activism on these critical and sensitive topics.


    This collaboration was launched with a dialogue on 6 November 2013 during the World Council of Churches’ 10th Assembly held in Busan, Republic of Korea. The discussion brought together faith leaders, community activists and health experts in a forum titled, "Creating intergenerational safe spaces on responding to HIV, human rights and reproductive health," to discuss the possible solutions to addressing these challenges within faith communities.


    Opening the session, Peter Prove, Executive Director of the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance said, "Let no one make any mistake, we haven't yet reached the tipping point in the response to HIV. The battle is not won and the churches, if no one else, must reiterate this point – that the battle is not won and that we are in for the long haul."


    Prove emphasized, "Our purpose here today is to begin a process of encounter and dialogue with young people living with HIV, whereby we want to hear from them. We want to be challenged by their experiences. And we want to respond to them, not to tell them what they should do and how they should feel."


    Shyreen Mvula, a 19 year old woman from Malawi, spoke of being told of her HIV positive status when she was 12 years old. The only girl in a family of 6 children, she is also the only child living with HIV. "It was very difficult for me to cope with this disease, because I felt like I was the only one with this disease," she said.


    The support of her youth groups, family and church buoyed Shyreen's spirits to become an advocate for other youth growing up with HIV. She said, "Later on when I joined with groups of young people living with HIV in Malawi, I knew that I'm not the only person having HIV. And it gave me strength that I can do something besides live with HIV. HIV cannot rule me, I can rule it."


    John Ryan, a young gay man from the Philippines, affirmed the need for more safe spaces for dialogue on HIV within faith communities. He said “even if I work with a missionary organization, [there still] is the need to be more visible and to dialogue more openly on human sexuality. Because if churches continue to push us away, we aren't going to deal with this epidemic any better."


    Ryan told how he had internalized the condemnation of his sexuality when he learned of his positive status.  "I felt as if I was being punished by God," he said. Sinking into depression, he "thought of a hundred ways to kill myself." But in seeking treatment, he found others who were living with HIV who had been condemned by the church and their families. "It's hell on earth, really," he said.


    The Rev. Dr Nyambura Njoroge, programme executive of the Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiative in Africa (EHAIA), reflected on the stories of these youth by saying churches must be the epicenter of comprehensive sexual education. "I'm getting the message, even though it may not have been said very emphatically, that the message [from the churches] is not sexual education, but sexual prevention," she said.


    "We need to change that way of thinking, especially now," Njoroge said. "Because we know that if we don't teach comprehensive sexual education, HIV [prevention] is going nowhere."


    The World YWCA views this effort to gain the support of faith communities as a key component of its ongoing mission to ensure health of women and families. Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, World YWCA General Secretary, believes this dialogue is essential to the realization of the organization's goals. Emphasizing the forum participants' commitment to their faith communities, she said, "We are part of the church, because we are women of faith who form the church."


    Calling upon churches to equip families, create safe spaces and find the courage to have difficult discussions on topics of sexual and reproductive health, she said the church and the family are the first line of support in combatting stigma and silence, and creating wholeness for those living with HIV.


    "How do we celebrate the gift of love within the context of HIV?" she asked. "When you have young people ready to form a family, wanting to enter into a fulfilling relationship … it means they need to be able to negotiate relationship and make a disclosure of their HIV status and to have family planning options so that they enter into sexual relationship in a way that protects their partner and also in a way that they are protected, and in a way that they can have children if they decide to have children."


    "Is the church competent enough to give the marriage counseling on issues of human sexuality to young people living with HIV?" Gumbonzvanda concluded of the project's goals. "It means we need to have the tools, the language, the confidence to celebrate the gift of love."



    Background on the project

    Around the world more than 350,000 women die annually from complications during pregnancy or childbirth; the overwhelming majority live in developing countries. Adolescents under 16 face four times the risk of maternal death and morbidity than women over 20, and the practice of early marriage, which is still common in many communities in Africa and Asia, forces many young girls to drop out of school and into early sexual relations, where they are unprepared to negotiate safe sex, let alone family planning.


    HIV is the leading cause of death and disease among women of reproductive age (15-49 years) worldwide, and the second leading killer of young men of the same age group. According to the UNAIDS report on the Global AIDS Epidemic (2012), in 2011, there were some 2.5 million new infections of which 1.8 million were in Sub-Saharan Africa. More than half of these infections occur in young people between the ages of 15-24, the majority of whom are young women.


    In 2009, 370,000 children were newly infected with HIV and up to 60,000 pregnant women die annually of HIV-related causes (UNAIDS). With access to anti-retrovirals for women during pregnancy and breastfeeding, prevention-of-mother-to-child-transmission (PMTCT) of HIV can be reduced to five percent and maternal, newborn and child mortality reduced. While the roll out of universal access to treatment for this target group has been accelerated, stigma, discrimination and fear continue to prevent women from testing for HIV and accessing treatment.


    The interaction between lack of sexual and reproductive health information and services and the HIV pandemic is widely documented and share the root causes of gender and economic inequalities and the social marginalization of young people, particularly young women and non-heterosexual individuals. This is exacerbated by sexual- and gender-based violence or the threat of violence, which hampers the ability of these groups to protect themselves from HIV infection or to assert healthy sexual decision making and promote responsible well being. With between 11 and 45 percent of adolescent girls reporting that their first sexual experience was forced (UNAIDS, 2011), it is little wonder that HIV prevalence rates are higher among young women 15-24 than young men of the same age.


    This joint initiative by the World YWCA, the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance and the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiative in Africa, with funding from Norad, the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, will aim, over the next three years, to identify common ground for faith communities to better address their constituents' needs for comprehensive information on sexual and reproductive health, sexual violence prevention and HIV.


    For more information contact: Sara Speicher, sspeicher@e-alliance.ch, +44 7821 860 723

The Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance is a broad international network of churches and Christian organizations cooperating in advocacy on food and HIV and AIDS. The Alliance is based in Geneva, Switzerland. For more information, see http://www.e-alliance.ch/

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