LWF/DWS Nepal Combating Stigmatization with Information Campaigns
BANGKOK, Thailand/GENEVA, 28 July 2004 (LWI) - Churches and faith communities have declared their opposition to discrimination against people with HIV/AIDS. A joint inter-faith declaration adopted at the end of the 15th International AIDS Conference, which was held from 11 to 16 July in Bangkok, Thailand, contained contributions from Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus. It was drafted with support of the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance (EAA).
"Trust in God, hope and compassion make a great difference with AIDS," stated Dr Musimbi Kanyoro, general secretary of the World Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA). She emphasized that "AIDS urges us to talk about sexuality." The religious leaders intend to mobilize their own resources to ensure that all people gain access to more information and receive treatment in keeping with the conference theme, "Access for All."
Dr Christoph Benn, director of external relations of the Geneva-based Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, is pleased with the declaration and stressed the importance of the conference issuing such a message. "There has never been anything like this at an AIDS conference," said the former deputy director of the German Institute for Medical Mission (DIFÄM) in Tübingen, Germany. Benn emphasized that the declaration supports and encourages local organizations.
It became clear at the conference that discrimination is still a major problem more than two decades after the outbreak of the pandemic. Shashi Rijal, a staff member of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) Department for World Service (DWS) country program in Nepal, reported that there was widespread stigmatization of those infected with HIV/AIDS. Describing a woman who had been rejected by her husband because she was infected with HIV, Rijal said, "We have many such cases." HIV/AIDS is spreading rapidly in Nepal, with the United Nations estimating that as many as 60,000 Nepalis are living with HIV/AIDS. Government figures indicate that 4,000 people are HIV-positive.
Rijal attributes the spread of AIDS to poverty, the high number of migrant workers and Nepal's civil war. The LWF/DWS country program focuses its information and prevention campaign on the disadvantaged caste of Dalits and refugees. Rijal reported that the large number of migrant workers in western Nepal, who earn their living in India, bring the virus back with them. In other areas of the country, child trafficking contributes to the spread of AIDS.
"The danger has not been recognized yet," the LWF staff member claimed, noting that one of the greatest problems is that people do not talk about AIDS. Women suffer most from the pandemic, Rijal told the conference, because "They have no say; they are illiterate and poor."
Bishnu Ghimire, a staff member of an LWF partner organization in Nepal, presented examples of the widespread discrimination of those affected, including the case of a woman who had been cast out of her village community. When she went for an HIV test after the death of her husband, the news that she was HIV-positive spread like wildfire through the village and she was told to move away. When she did not move, her house was burnt down.
When the widow, with several children aged between four and 14, still refused to be driven away, the rest of the inhabitants denied her all support. She sent her three older children to work as domestics, but they were sent back home when it became known that their mother was HIV-infected. The children then had to fend for themselves as their mother was so weak by now that she had to be hospitalized.
The information campaigns of the LWF/DWS program confront such forms of discrimination. With 3,000 AIDS-related deaths reported last year in Nepal, according to Ghimire, the program intends to set up a network in conjunction with other aid agencies to increase its effectiveness. The groups at risk, according to LWF/DWS Nepal, include migrant workers, about 20,0000 prostitutes, with an estimated 17 percent infected, and 35,000 intravenous drug users, with an estimated 50 percent who are HIV-positive.
The LWF/DWS country program in Nepal has informed over 70,000 people about the dangers of HIV/AIDS. The information campaigns, which are launched in conjunction with projects to open up new livelihoods for those affected, always strive to involve Hindu leaders in the work. "Religious leaders can do a lot to influence people's behavior," Rijal explains. The leaders are respected in the community and their words carry a lot of weight. In her view, there is an urgent need to appeal to them on a large scale.