The Role of Faith-Based Organizations in Fighting HIV

Geneva, 2 April 2019 - Is there a specific role for faith-based organizations in the fight against HIV? And if so, do they have the credibility to play such a role and to contribute to reducing stigma and discrimination? These were some of the questions addressed by a workshop involving NGOs, government and UN representatives in Geneva in February.

Organized by the World Council of Churches-Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance (WCC-EAA), UNAIDS and the International Catholic Migration Commission, the workshop focused on strengthening collaboration among faith-based and international organizations, governments and NGOs to address HIV prevention and treatment amid migrants and refugees.

The workshop participants issued a road map for increased action by faith-based organizations in response to HIV among migrants and refugees.

Migrants and Refugees’ Vulnerability to HIV

Approximately 37 million people live with HIV today, with 1.8 million new infections every year. Nearly 1 million people died of AIDS-related diseases in 2017, and about one-quarter of those living with HIV do not know their status. In certain regions, women who experience physical and sexual violence are one and a half times more likely to contract HIV.

“Religion plays a very important role in the lives of mobile populations," said Ms. Wangari Tharao, member of the NGO Delegation to UNAIDS. More than 70% of migrant women she surveyed say religion influences their everyday decisions around health and life. © Albin Hillert/WCC Many migrants and refugees are particularly at risk due to precarious living conditions. “Conflict and violence are factors that drive both vulnerability to HIV and forced migration,” said ICMC Secretary General Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo at the start of the workshop. Furthermore, migrants and refugees are often at high risk of sexual violence and sexual trafficking, which increase the risk of contracting HIV.

Migrants and refugees often face difficulties accessing health care services. These challenges may stem from lack of proper documentation, discrimination or laws barring certain migrants from benefiting from local health systems.

Moreover, migrants’ frequent relocation makes them difficult to reach. Organizations that offer HIV prevention and treatment services to migrants face high drop-out rates among enrolled participants as the latter relocate.

Faith-Based Organizations’ Privileged Position in the Fight Against HIV

According to Ms. Wangari Tharao, a member of the NGO Delegation to the governing body of the UN Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), migrants and refugees fear the stigma and discrimination associated to HIV. Negative narratives and irrational fears surrounding migration discourage migrants from seeking treatment when it is available.

Faith-based organizations have privileged access to people living with or at risk of contracting HIV. “Religion plays a very important role in the lives of mobile populations,” said Tharao. “I asked [migrant] women what role religion plays in their lives. More than 70% say that it influences their everyday decisions around health and life.”

Many migrants and refugees “trust church people more than anyone,” echoed Dr. Michael P. Grillo, branch chief of the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). “They prefer church people to the police, NGOs and health departments,” he added.

The credibility of faith-based organizations puts them in a privileged position to increase awareness of HIV and to promote treatment. They can influence migrants’ attitudes towards HIV testing and assist people affected so that they receive treatment throughout their lives. They also can support victims of sexual violence and advocate for holding perpetrators accountable.

Using new technologies to remain connected to people on the move, distributing HIV self-testing kits directly at places of work for migrants and creating culturally-adapted awareness materials are just a few of the ideas shared during the workshop to improve outreach to migrants and refugees.

Perhaps the most compelling reason why faith-based organizations should focus on the fight against HIV among migrants is that they can offer a spiritual dimension to HIV care. Patients may respond better to treatment when they receive comprehensive healthcare that includes a spiritual aspect, said Fr. Richard Bauer from the Eastern Deanery AIDS Relief Program (EDARP), a Catholic organization that works in the Eastern slums of Nairobi, Kenya.