BANGALORE, India, 11 October 2010 – More than 400 religious leaders from around India recently travelled to the Art of Living International Centre near the southern city of Bangalore to see how people of faith could help those living with HIV.
VIDEO: UNICEF reports on a recent inter-faith gathering of religious leaders, international organizations and people living with HIV.
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Alongside hundreds of other participants – who represented UNICEF and its partners, as well as people living with HIV – the leaders tackled the crisis of stigma and discrimination of those affected by HIV in India.
While the country has a low HIV prevalence at just 0.34 per cent, because of its large population India is home to the third-largest number individuals infected in the world. The epidemic is most pronounced in urban areas and decreases as education levels increase. HIV in India also disproportionately affects women, who account for some 40 per cent of the country’s total infections.
In a joint declaration, 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.
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 HIV-affected people. Our whole nation benefits.
His Holiness Shastri Swami Narayancharandasji Gujarat, India
We religious leaders are working hard against discrimination. It is the most humane service we can provide to fight HIV and AIDS. Everyone is equal, including HIV-affected people. They want to lead a normal life all over the world. 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. All people live together in one world. We are all one family.
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. 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.
Girin Govind, Secretary to His Holiness Sri Ravi Shankar, Art of Living Karnataka, India
We felt the need to organize this meeting because of the growing numbers of people living with HIV and AIDS. We are one organization that can bring all the faiths together. To get all faith leaders together is not an easy job ... 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. Religious leaders can influence the masses – people not touched by the government or the media. They have a bigger reach to all types of people who come to them for solace.
Our sisters and brothers are becoming victims of HIV and AIDS. I consider it a big step to remove stigma and discrimination. Many people are talking about fidelity. We need to think 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.
Agui Daimie, Meghalaya Network of Positive People Meghalaya, India
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 people living with HIV a face. Every faith organization needs to be awakened to do whatever possible they can. Many people are not educated, but they come to church every Sunday. [A religious leader] 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.
Buddhist Professor Khenpo Chowant Sikkim, India
It is really necessary to give compassion. Anger, desire and ignorance are the source of all suffering. Spiritual leaders, through their faith, can help with our compassion and blessings. We love [people living with HIV] 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.
Karin Hulshof, UNICEF Representative in India Delhi, India
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.