BANGALORE, Dec 4: Most of us have heard of AIDS and believed it has been afflicting distant shores in Africa and elsewhere. Painfully, we are now aware that the dreaded disease is in our midst causing great anxiety. Statistics say that in India the number of people infected is over 5 million already.
India, after South Africa, has the second highest number of infected persons in the world. The most shocking thing is that women and girls are the worst affected. This year, for the World AIDS Day, UNAIDS has proposed the theme: ?Women, Girls and HIV/AIDS: Have you heard me today?? It is a fact that women suffer most. Once infected or affected, AIDS disrupts family and society.
As chairman of the CBCI Commission for Healthcare, I would like to reflect with you on the Church’s response to HIV/AIDS in our country, especially in the context of the painful stigma and discrimination that the infected and affected are subjected to by the members of their own family and society. All of us have a mission to change their tears into hope. Also, we need to work together to prevent the further spread of this disease.
Vulnerability of Women
In the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the disease was frequently seen in men. Today, young women and girls are found more susceptible to HIV than men and boys, with studies showing that they can be two and a half times more prone to be infected than their counterparts. This demands our special attention on women.
Women, not only are more susceptible to infection, but generally they are also socially and economically in a very disadvantageous position. Factors like poverty, early marriage, trafficking in women, sex work, migration, illiteracy, lack of health and nutritional care, gender discrimination and domestic violence, etc. put them in at a high risk of acquiring the infection. We often find that in a family, when HIV infects a person, women provide care, and take up the responsibility to attend to the family needs. Poverty pushes women into risky behaviour or dangerous situations. They fall prey to various sorts of violence.
There are often situations where girls are coerced into early marriage or sexual activity. Faithfulness offers little protection to the wives whose husbands have multiple partners or have already been infected. Conventional preventive strategies do not protect the women in particular.
Once a woman is infected, she is abandoned, helpless, hopeless and left alone in a valley of tears.
Is there still hope for her to find comfort and solace? As a faith community, we need to adopt strategies and programmes aimed towards wider awareness building, education and empowerment of girls and women. Breaking the culture of silence is critical to tackle the problem of HIV infection among women.
Jesus empowered weak, vulnerable
In the Gospels, we find Jesus was constantly involved in the context of and the life situations of people. He intervened to ensure that the dignity and status of the weak and vulnerable was restored and upheld. He appreciated the faith and courage of a woman who suffered from hemorrhage for 12 years, and contrary to the existing customs, dared to touch his garment, and was healed. He tenderly held the hand of Jairus? daughter, declaring, “Little girl, I say to you, rise”. Also there was the incident of the widow of Naim, whose only son Jesus brought back to life, in order to bring new hope and support in her old age. The episode of the woman caught in adultery eloquently portrays his tenderness to the socially ostracised. In each of these instances, Jesus was empowering them, with a unique compassion and loving acceptance. For all those in deep pain and suffering, he imparts consolation.
Response of Catholic Church
The Church, which is the continuation of God’s compassionate presence among his people, carries on the healing mission of the Master. Deriving inspiration from Jesus, the Divine Healer, the Church in India has responded decisively and positively to HIV/AIDS through individuals and institutions in prevention, treatment, care and support.
We appreciate with gratitude all those who dedicate themselves to serve the less fortunate. A number of Catholic hospitals have been treating HIV/AIDS infected patients without any discrimination and this has been acknowledged by national as well as international agencies.
At present 52 Catholic institutions are exclusively involved in care and management of HIV-infected patients, the majority of the beneficiaries whom are orphaned and in need of special support. Agencies like Catholic Relief Services (CRS) have been in the forefront in mobilizing home-based and community-based care.
The study programmes on ?HIV and Family Education? and the Bachelor Degree in Social Work, offered by the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) are the fruit of close collaboration between IGNOU and the CBCI Commission for Health. We encourage more to join for these courses and benefit by them. National organizations like Catholic Health Association of India (CHAI) and Caritas India are contributing their might to sensitize the society towards prevention and combating the disease. St. John’s Medical College and other institutions have been training more medical and health personnel.
With the support of the Catholic Medical Mission Board (CMMB), the CBCI Commission for Health has been coordinating a concerted response of the Church against HIV/AIDS, networking with different organizations and helping the regions to have a coordinated strategy. We are also in the process of formulating a HIV/AIDS Policy, with the support of the Futures Group and USAID. But, considering the magnitude of the pandemic, and the gravity of harm it causes, we know that we still have a major mission to accomplish.
Leaders of various religious communities came together at the 15th International AIDS Conference held July 11-16 in Bangkok. They acknowledged that “… Quite often our response has been one of prejudice, ignorance, fear and judgmental attitudes.” In the statement of commitment they affirmed their determination, “… to overcome silence, stigma, discrimination, denial, and fear regarding HIV/AIDS”, and “promote the dignity, equality and rights of all people”.
There should be no discrimination against a person infected by HIV/AIDS or affected by it in our communities and institutions. Mother Teresa said: “A person affected with HIV/AIDS is Jesus among us. How can we say ‘no’ to Him?” We, too, in caring for the person living with HIV/AIDS, recognise the same Christ alive in every individual.
Empowerment through Education
Emphasising the need of education for empowerment and right decision making, Pope John Paul II, in his message for the World Day of the Sick, 2005 urges, ?In order to fight AIDS in a responsible way, efforts for prevention should be strengthened through education in respect for the sacred value of life and through formation in the correct practice of sexuality.? Focusing on the role of family, the Second Vatican Council declares, “Family is the first school of those social virtues that every society needs” (GE, no.3). Together with the family, the schools, youth organizations, basic ecclesial communities and parishes must make intentional, collaborative and focused efforts to bring greater awareness of HIV/AIDS and its prevention.
Peer education is citied as one of the most important approaches to youth programmes in HIV/AIDS prevention and care. It will be a great help to introduce Life Skill Education in schools, which comprises of directive, thoughtful curricula, accurately interpreted medical data and ethical reasoning. This would help to guide students towards right decisions involving respect and responsibility in one’s behavioral pattern.
In the context of the World AIDS Day 2004, I appeal to all the health and social service organizations, institutions and parishes to actively work towards the empowerment of women and girls. Our Self-Help Groups and Mahila Mandals could play a major role in this endeavour. HIV affected as well as HIV infected widows need our special attention. We should strive to improve their economic well being by involving them in income generation projects. We also need to see that their rights to property and inheritances are protected.
Formation of support groups, consisting of people infected, affected and other volunteers, is another initiative to be fostered in parishes, communities and care settings. Talking to somebody who has `been there’ is always beneficial for a newly diagnosed person. Positive Speaking Forum can be a medium to witness God through testimonies.
(Archbishop Bernard Moras of Bangalore is Chairman, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India Commission For Healthcare).
-By Archbishop Bernard Moras, SAR NEWS
Author: Archbishop Bernard Moras