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UN Review on AIDS: Is the World Moving Away from HIV?

11. April 2011

    UNITED NATIONS  -- Representatives of faith-based advocacy and humanitarian groups participating in an 8 April hearing at the United Nations (UN) on the HIV pandemic said the meeting highlighted progress that had been made but also revealed serious challenges ahead.

    Efforts by faith groups and others will have to be particularly focused and intense in the weeks leading up to a high-level 8-10 June meeting at the UN that will assess progress and set new targets in the global response to HIV and AIDS. 

    “I’m worried; I’m scared,” Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda of Zimbabwe, general secretary of the the World Young Women’s Christian Association, and a speaker at the hearing, said at an evening “de-brief” sponsored by the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance (EAA) following the all-day civil society meeting. 

    “The world is moving away from HIV,” she said, expressing a concern by faith-based activists at the meeting that what has been achieved globally, though commendable, is just a beginning and will be lost if global concern about HIV and AIDS wanes in the coming years.

    If anything, said economist and UN special advisor Jeffrey D. Sachs of Columbia University in New York: “We need to scale up, scale up, scale up.”

    In an era of global and national “scaling-back” for social programs while military expenditures increase, Gumbonzvanda said in an interview, governments “have their resource envelopes. They make choices. When they say, ‘We don’t have money for AIDS,’ they are making a choice.”

    Peter Prove, the executive director of the Geneva-based EAA, said he, too, is worried, as the general trend “of the discourse is as if the battle (against HIV and AIDS) has already been won. But it’s nowhere near been won, really.”

    Faith-based advocates like Gumbonzvanda and Prove said that progress in the response to HIV has to be affirmed and acknowledged, whether it is the fact that many people being treated for HIV are living longer lives or that more people than ever are being treated medically.

    But, as Prove said in an interview following the all-day session, only about one-third of those who need treatment are now receiving it. By 2030, there may be some 55 million who will require it.

    The worry, Prove said, is that international attention to the problem may be waning due to other global issues, leading to a possible “down-scaling” of the global response to HIV.  “That’s exactly the moment for the churches and other faith groups to say, ‘No, that’s not right.’ ”

    It will be up to faith-based groups like the EAA to mount national advocacy campaigns, prayer vigils and other events leading up to the crucial June meeting to keep the issue alive and to send a signal to governments who will agree to a new declaration on HIV and AIDS that the issue remains of supreme importance, Prove said. “We can’t allow a declaration that weakens the prospects for an effective HIV response,” he said.

    EAA and other faith-based groups are insisting that the declaration by June’s high-level meeting include commitments by national governments that they address stigma, discrimination and root causes of vulnerability to HIV; achieve universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support; and ensure accountability and sufficient resources.

    The hearing itself, held in the UN’s General Assembly Hall, was marked by declarations of praise by UN officials for what activists had been able to achieve during the 30 years of the AIDS pandemic.

    “The engagement of civil society and the private sector is indispensable in holding governments accountable, in ensuring that the AIDS response respects human rights, and in advocating for the creation of legal and social environments that protect people from infection and support social justice,” Joseph Deiss, the president of the UN General Assembly said as he opened the hearing.

    For his part, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon thanked civil society representatives for their grassroots “contributions and sacrifices.”

    “We are here today because of you. Because of your energy, there has been progress in preventing the spread of HIV. Because of your activism, millions of people are getting treatment.”

    He also sounded a personal note, saying: “Before I became Secretary-General, these were not issues I was accustomed to talking about. But I quickly realized that the old slogan ‘silence equals death’ is absolutely true. And I realized something else: stigma equals death. As long as people feel ashamed to talk about sexuality, as long as it is considered immoral for women to understand their own reproductive health, as long as individuals with HIV are subject to systematic abuse, then stigma will cause death upon death upon death.”

    Some faith-based representatives who spoke at the hearing said, like the secretary-general, they felt compelled to break silences over those who might be left out of the discussion, such as children, who continue to be affected by the pandemic in a number of ways.

    “The children are voiceless; the children are not invited to the UN,” hearing speaker Nuraan Osman, of the Islamic Resource Foundation of South Africa, said in an interview. “It’s so important to keep the children’s flame burning.”

    The concern about lack of specificity about children at the hearing and in the document being considered was also expressed by two representatives of EAA member World Vision International, Christo Greyling, who oversees the humanitarian agency’s response to HIV and infectious diseases, and Jane Chege, an associate director, researcher and designer.

    “For me, it’s sad; children are a voiceless group and yet they are one of the key populations affected by the pandemic,” Greyling said. Chege noted: “The voice of children has been completely marginalized,” adding she is concerned about a host of issues related to children, including measurable targets of access to treatment by children and mothers.

    Another faith-based representative, retired Anglican Bishop Christopher Senyonjo of Uganda, representing the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, was one of the meeting’s panelists.

    In discussing the problem of stigma and his work to provide “safe space” for Uganda’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered communities, Senyonjo evoked the image of family as a non-discriminatory body. “If we regard society as a family, then we try to live with each other,” Senyonjo said in an interview. “You have an understanding; you love people as they are.”

    The evening before the meeting, faith-based representatives gathered at Tillman Chapel at the Church Center for the United Nations for a multi-faith prayer gathering that included readings and reflections from members of Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions.

    Greyling told prayer gathering participants that faith communities “have a huge reach: we’re in every community.” But, he said, faith communities are often perceived, rightly or wrongly, as “the stoppers” of progress in the fight against HIV and AIDS. “We need to show others that we’re part of the solution,” he said, “and not part of the problem.”

    A “pre-meeting” for civil society representatives held late Thursday (7 April) demonstrated the continued energy and commitment of AIDS activists on a host of issues. Among the concerns participants at the meeting expressed about the global response to the pandemic were worries about the difficulty of response in areas of Africa facing civil conflicts and war; that there are still not enough women involved in high-level decision-making about HIV and AIDS; and that the voice of young people is not sufficiently represented at global AIDS forums.

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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