Reducing the threat of HIV remains a challenge
Calle Almedal from Sweden has worked on issues of HIV since 1982. He is a former consultant for the Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiative in Africa (EHAIA), a project of the World Council of Churches. In an interview he speaks about HIV’s impact on communities, the importance of education in sexual health and churches’ responses to HIV. Almedal was trained as a nurse and has been associated with several international organisations including the United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS, Save the Children in North Yemen and the Norwegian Red Cross in Mozambique.
How do you see HIV affecting communities amid the current financial crisis?
The situation for communities is rather bleak, especially for people in need of medicines. In Madagascar, for example, medicines seem to have dried up. Some church organisations have stopped working on HIV, which is very unfortunate. They should have persevered and should be a voice in the global North for those in need in the South. In a way, I think they are abandoning their brothers and sisters.
That said, there are thousands of brave Christians working in the field of HIV as volunteers or for very little remuneration. There are churches and Christian organisations adjusting their budgets to be able to continue addressing issues of HIV. I recently heard about one congregation that saved money for a pipe organ, but used it for an HIV-related project instead.
Who do you think is most vulnerable to HIV, and why?
Young people. We save thousands of children from getting HIV at birth, and then we fail them completely by not giving them a proper education in sexual health. How can we protect ourselves against a sexually transmitted virus if we do not have the basic knowledge about human sexuality?
Let me state it clearly: education in sexual health does not lead to sexual promiscuity. It is a life skills tool. In places where there is emphasis on education in sexual health, there are fewer unwanted pregnancies in teenagers and a lesser degree of sexually transmitted infections.
The second group is women. I think as long as churches keep telling women to be obedient to their husbands, we will force them into slavery, where their husbands can do as they please. Many times, when women are asked about their main priority in life, and they answer, “to be obedient to my husband”. Not food, not water, not wood, not school fees, but obedience to her husband.
How do you evaluate the response of the churches to the HIV pandemic?
Churches response to HIV has varied a lot and continues to do so. However, on the whole I am really pleased with churches’ engagement, especially those who tackle very difficult issues. What I miss is a fuller engagement of Christian educational institutions, as such engagement would undoubtedly have a tremendous impact.
We all need to “see God in the other” and understand the inherent human dignity which is God-given. An infringement on this dignity, as it is more than a concept, is serious. It is an infringement on the One who gave it to us. We need to let God do the job of judging; it is not up to us to do that. We need to remind ourselves of this often.
How do you evaluate the role of initiatives like EHAIA?
EHAIA is one of the most evolving entities working on HIV in Africa. EHAIA is where people are. Together with people it formulates questions and together with people finds answers. EHAIA listens and learns, it reflects and it studies. It consults and it exposes new ideas and issues. It takes the tough issues by the horns, and is neutral and non-judgmental. It creates safe spaces where people can have a dialogue without fear.
HIV is connected to a plethora of issues central to our faith: truth, reconciliation, stewardship, sexuality, male and female relations, sexual violence, theology, oppression, incest, justice, education, family, kindness, love and many more. EHAIA has impacted all areas it works with.
Africa has the deepest, the most painful and the most extensive experience of HIV. We all have a lot to learn from Africa. This project should be exported. It is on its way to Asia, and would be relevant in other regions of the world.
Why is it important to continue to engage churches in HIV-related issues?
HIV touches many issues central to faith, as well as to the question of respect. We in the global North tend to forget that most people actually have a faith and practice it. It is an important part of life for the majority of the people. Therefore, in contact with people of faith, if faith is left out, disrespect emerges as a consequence.
There is also the question of hope, and only faith gives us hope in a comprehensive way. Engaging churches and other faith-based organisations is important, and not only because of their outreach; and not because we think that people do what the pastor preaches. They don’t, and the HIV pandemic is a proof. It is more about respect and hope, or respect of hope.
Addressing the HIV pandemic in South Sudan (WCC feature article of 1 June 2012)
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