By Angela Walker
BANGALORE, India, 28 September 2010 -- This week, more than 400 religious leaders from around India travelled to the Art of Living International Centre to see how people of faith could tackle stigma and discrimination of those affected by HIV in the country.
India has a low HIV prevalence of 0.34 per cent. Yet in terms of individuals infected, India is home to the third largest number of people living with HIV in the world. The epidemic is more pronounced in urban areas than rural ones and decreases with increasing education levels.
The epidemic disproportionately affects women, who account for 40 per cent of the total infections in the country.
In a joint declaration released Tuesday, the religious leaders affirmed that “faith communities have a crucial role to play in eradicating stigma and discrimination.” They pledged to “work tirelessly to remove all forms of stigma, discrimination, isolation and margalization of people living with and affected by HIV.”
Here, in their own words, are the views of a few of the 800 participants who attended the two-day summit supported by UNICEF and its partners:
Mahamandleshwar Baba Riza Dass, Uttar Pradesh
India is like a bouquet that has many flowers: Hindus, Sikhs, Christian, Muslims. I want to educate my followers about HIV and spread awareness about it.
We must stop this discrimination and think about what is best for our country.
When our God does not discriminate, then why should we? Let us join hands with the HIV-affected people. Our whole nation benefits.
Mufti Shamoon Qasmi, Uttar Pradesh
Our sisters and brothers are becoming victims of AIDS. I consider it a big step to remove stigma and discrimination. Many people are talking about fidelity.
We need to thing about people who already have this disease and try to help them.
Islam stands for love and peace. The prophet talks about no stigma because of disease. There should be no stigma regarding HIV/AIDS and Islam.
Sister Maria Silva, Karnataka
Each of us belongs to God. We are the children of God. We deal with lots of cases. They come to us as the last stage when they have really lost hope. We are working with them as patients.
When they die, we give them a good death. In Christianity, we are all brothers and sisters whether you have HIV or any other sickness. Jesus said, “What you do unto the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.”
If we discriminate, we are going against Christ. We look for Christ in each person. Though there are many religions, we all belong to one God. It’s important to love and be with them and listen to them to ease their pain and suffering.
When we give them hope, they can stand on their own feet and give hope to others.
His Holiness Shastri Swami Narayancharandasji, Gujarat
We religious leaders are working hard against discrimination. It is the most humane service we can provide to fight against HIV and AIDS. Everyone is equal, including HIV-affected people.
They want to lead a normal life all over the world. We can do more and more work on HIV stigma and discrimination. In India, there are different types of religions and beliefs. This is very fortunate.
When all religious leaders come together on one stage, we can work together. Whatever we wish, we can do. In our history there have been different types of diseases. HIV-affected are normal human beings.
We all worship together, so why discriminate? All people live together in one world. We are all one family.
Karin Hulshof, UNICEF India Representative, Delhi
People living with HIV are forced to cope not only with the infection and the impact it has on their health but also the social discrimination associated with the infection.
It is this very fear of stigma and discrimination that makes our fight against HIV/AIDS so complex and difficult.
Stigma and discrimination add to the burden faced by families living with HIV. Coping mechanisms are negatively impacted by the lack of understanding in the family and the community at large.
We must lead by example: our compassion and empathy to those affected by HIV/AIDS will help others understand this disease.
We need to understand and break the cycle of fear that inhibits an effective response to HIV. This will allow a common response to this new public health challenge. We need to humanize the epidemic, to see the human beings that are hidden behind the numbers and the acronyms and understand their lives, their dreams, their hopes.
Girin Govind, Secretary to His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Art of Living, Karnataka
We felt the need to organize this meeting because of the growing numbers of people living with HIV/AIDS. We are one organization that can bring all the faiths together. To get all faith leaders together is not an easy job, which his holiness can do.
Stigma is definitely an issue. That needs to be addressed. It has not been spoken about enough. Education is very important to address the ignorance about HIV. When faith leaders start using “HIV/AIDS” and “religion” in the same sentence that will make a big difference.
The word “HIV” is considered “untouchable.” Religious leaders can influence the masses -- people not touched by the government or the media in villages. They have a bigger reach to all types of people who come to them for solace.
Khenpo Chowant, Buddhist professor, Sikkim
It is really necessary to give compassion. They need the support that religious leaders can provide. Society thinks that HIV-affected people are untouchable. It is necessary to educate them.
Anger, desire and ignorance are the source of all suffering. Spiritual leaders, through their faith, can help with our compassion and blessings.
We love them and really want to help them and give them comfort. Disease is impermanent. One needs determination so they can help themselves. Buddha says compassion leads to faith and devotion.
Agui Daimie, Meghalaya Network of Positive People, Meghalaya
My church asked me to share my testimony after getting my HIV status. I was a little bit nervous. My coming out is a good platform to give PLHIVs (People Living with HIV) a face.
Every faith organization needs to be awakened to do whatever possible they can. Faith organizations are very important, because they control society and people look at them as leaders. They can give a better understanding.
Many people are not educated, but they come to church every Sunday. They can serve as an advocate, a facilitator, a spiritual councillor and an emotional backup. Faith is something we cannot see, but it can give us the hope to live.
For media queries and more information:
Chief, Advocacy & Partnerships
Communication Officer (Media)