“People living with HIV should be loved as God has loved us. Being infected with the virus doesn’t make one a bad person.” – Rev. Phumizille Mabizela of South Africa
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By ANNE MARXZE D. UMIL
MANILA – The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) affects people from all walks of life, even the religious.
Reverend Canon Dr. Gideon Baguma Byamugisha from Uganda and Reverend Phumzile Mabizela, are church leaders from South Africa who are both living with HIV. They are also advocates who help in the campaign to eradicate the stigma, shame, denial, discrimination, inaction and mis-action (SSDDIM). Last June, the church leaders, together with another church worker Elijah Fung, manager of the St. John’s Cathedral HIV Education Center in Hong Kong visited the Philippines.
In a breakfast meeting held last June 6 at the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP), Byamugisha and Mabizela shared that people living with HIV (PLHIV) should be advocates as well. In that way, they said, they are helping eradicate false thinking about them.
Mabizela is the executive director of INARELA+, an international, interfaith network of religious leaders – both lay and ordained, women and men – who are living with or are personally affected by HIV. She was infected by HIV in 1999 and since then has committed herself to combat HIV-related silence, stigma and discrimination and has been advocating for effective prevention, care, treatment and support.
INARELA+ promotes the ‘SAVE’ approach to HIV, a response that was originally formulated by the leaders of the African Network ANARELA+. The SAVE approach, according to the INARELA+ website, provides a more holistic way of preventing HIV by incorporating principles of the ABC (Abstinence, Be faithful and condom use), as well as providing additional information about HIV transmission and prevention, providing support and care for those already infected and actively challenging the denial, stigma and discrimination associated with HIV.
SAVE stands for:
– Safe practices (A+B+C+PMTCT(prevention of mother to child transmission)+ Safe blood+ Safe injections +Safe circumcision+ safe microbicides and vaccines research);
– Access to care, treatment and nutrition;
– Voluntary, routine and stigma-free counseling and testing;
– Empowerment of children, youths, women, men, families, communities and nations vulnerable to preventable and controllable infections, illnesses and deaths.
“PLHIV should be loved as God has loved us. Being infected with the virus doesn’t make one a bad person,” the Reverend said. She added that living positively is the best weapon against the virus.
Byamugisha also stressed the importance of support of the family and the community to the PLHIV.
“When people are loved and supported they live a long life. If the child is not supported by her mother, the child can die in the next three hours. If families reject their loved one who is infected by HIV, he or she will die. When PLHIV are stigmatized they die quickly.”
Byamugisha is an Anglican priest and Canon in Uganda. He is a social justice activist, educator, theological ethicist and an outspoken advocate in the sphere of HIV and AIDS-related stigma.
In 1992, Byamugisha became the first religious leader in Africa to publicly announce that he is HIV positive. He also co-founded the African Network of Religious Leaders Living with and Personally
Affected HIV and AIDS (ANARELA+) in February 2002. He started a shelter in 2006 for orphans of people who died of AIDS. In 2009, he also received the 26 wiki/Niwano_Peace_Prize “in recognition of his work to uphold the dignity and human rights of people living with HIV and AIDS.”
“I praise God who has helped us to survive. I also thank God that my Bishops are supportive and have been helping me to survive. I have almost died in 1998, here I am and still alive,” Byamugisha said. He fell ill in 1996 because he had no access to antiretroviral drugs (ARVs), which is used in the treatment of HIV infection. The bishop of Kampala used the church network to find two donors who began sending him the drugs in 1997.
Mabizela said she was fortunate to have a medical insurance that covers her medications. Most of all, she said, is the importance of healthy living.
Mabizela and Byamugisha are both active in their respective churches and actively campaigning against stigma and discrimination against PLHIV.
“Church people who are HIV positive should help in raising awareness to change people’s attitudes.
When a person within the church tells the people that HIV is an illness that we can manage then we can help reduce the stigma,” Byamugisha said in a separate interview with Bulatlat.com.
Byamugisha said that although his bishop and the church have been supportive of him since day one, there are still people that stigmatized him. “But the people who support and love me is bigger. In that environment of being protected and loved you are not afraid of being stigmatized.”
“I just pray for those people who stigmatize PLHIV. God forgive them because they don’t know what they’re doing. They are people who are not informed of the disease,” Byamugisha told Bulatlat.com.
Meanwhile, NCCP secretary general Rev. Fr. Rex Reyes, Jr. also expressed support to PLHIV in the Philippines. “We are here to support PLHIV. We are here to dispel thinking that PLHIV are sinners.”
“The NCCP’s self-understanding also seeks to be consistent with the definition of Paul of what churches are – communities built upon ‘the foundation of the apostles and prophets’ and Jesus being the chief cornerstone, in that order. Apostles teach the essentiality of service and prophets call us all, especially those powers and principalities, to repentance and to love peace and justice. Any demeaning or diminution of human life is always a violation of human rights and should be exposed and denounced.
Our loving service compels us to understand and know what these are in order to seek out, in this case, PLHIV so that not one of them is lost. They, too, are people created in the image of God.”
Reyes also called on the government to make medical treatment and other services accessible to PLHIV and provide for their needs. “It must prioritize the people’s access to basic social services and provide opportunities for their economic sustenance. In more ways than one, such moves ensure human dignity.”