Georgia Burford is the HIV Strategy Manager responsible for leading CAFOD’s corporate policy, strategy and technical support on HIV. In her interview she discusses how CAFOD’s work relates to Catholic Social teaching, the advantages of a religious organisation in tackling the epidemic and why HIV is linked to broader issues such as poverty.
1.How do you think CAFOD’s work on HIV links to values found in Catholic Social teaching?
CAFOD’s work surrounding HIV and AIDS is strongly motivated by Catholic values such as human dignity, the sanctity of human life, Liberation theology and the Preferential Option for the Poor. Catholic Social teaching states that we are all created equally in God’s eyes and therefore each human has the right to feel valued irrespective of their health status. Catholic social teaching encourages us to always work with the most marginalised in our communities like people with HIV who often experience a double vulnerability of financial poverty and social exclusion.
2.Do you think a faith based organisation is able to respond to HIV more effectively than a secular organisation?
Yes! In many developing countries faith plays a key role within societies which means CAFOD can have a lot of influence on the ground. In the context of hardship and distress many people look towards faith leaders as a form of support which means they have considerable power and influence in their communities. These faith leaders strive to provide clear, comprehensive and evidence- based information to local people which helps to educate and reduce stigma. Working alongside religious figures means we are able to reach the heart of communities thus helping to produce long-lasting sustainable change.
3.How do you ensure a comprehensive, evidence based approach to HIV that is free from judgement and stigma?
As part of CAFOD’s Global strategy we are committed to working on projects which are free from discrimination which means never turning people away. People from all walks of life are supported regardless if they are male or female, their sexual orientation or their work. Faith leaders have made great efforts to dispel some of the myths surrounding HIV for example by getting tested themselves as a means of discussing stigma and to explain the various ways HIV can be contracted apart from sex.
To ensure a comprehensive approach, CAFOD works on prevention as well as care and support in order to reduce new infections and to improve the quality of life for those living with and affected by HIV. One of our projects is the Stigma Reduction Initiative Work which encourages people to talk about HIV and promotes health seeking behaviours such as knowing their status which prevents new infections. On the care and support side, the stigma work improves people’s self esteem and encourages them to access health care, employment and supports them to disclose and live positively. The stigma surveys have been carried out in Ethiopia, Kenya and Zambia as a way of discussing local people’s perception of how stigma manifests. This data in addition to scientific input by doctors is then used to engage with faith leaders acting as a powerful tool to prompt discussion and ultimately create a more holistic understanding of what it means to experience HIV and how to reduce the virus and its social stigma.
4.For CAFOD HIV is not just a health concern but part of a broader picture of justice and poverty, can you expand on this?
HIV and AIDS are not solely a medical concern but part of a much wider set of development issues such as poverty and gender inequality. When we consider some of the root causes of HIV it is clear that poverty is often a cause of and translates into a lack of education and access to health services which generally makes people more vulnerable to HIV due to lack of information. If you have HIV, you may face stigma within your community which can impact your ability to earn an income. For example if you own a food stall in a market you may have fewer customers because you are alienated by your community for having HIV or you may lose your job altogether.
Alarmingly, half the population living with HIV are unaware of their health status because they are too frightened of getting tested because of its associated stigma. Even when husbands or wives test HIV positive they do not always tell their partners for fear of being abandoned which may lead to greater poverty as a result of fewer financial resources. The close ties between poverty and limited access to education and health services means it is extremely difficult to overcome the complex cycle of HIV and AIDS which is why it is necessary to address its many causes which involves preventative initiatives linked to education and health in addition to advocacy and care support.
5. Why must gender equality be taken into account when working on HIV?
All work surrounding the epidemic is closely linked to gender inequality. This is because people who are living with HIV also need carers, a task which befalls disproportionately on women. While this care work is certainly valuable we must also recognise that girls may have to sacrifice going to school and women may not be able to go to work because they have to look after the sick which leads to further poverty and subsequently greater risk of HIV. Women are also more likely to face gender-based violence which may manifest itself as marital rape or rape being used as a weapon of war.
6.Can you clarify CAFOD’s stance on the use of condoms and the distinction between preventing/protecting lives?
While CAFOD will not purchase or distribute condoms we remain committed to providing people with full and accurate information with regards to the causes of HIV and the various ways it can be prevented for example through greater education, better health resources and promoting gender equality. In the context of HIV prevention, we provide information on condoms as a means to reduce chances of new HIV infections.
7.What are CAFOD’s priorities regarding HIV in a post- 2015 framework?
Huge gains have been made since the introduction of antiretroviral drugs, people living with HIV can live long healthy lives and the drugs also help to prevent the transmission of new infections too. However, while the number of people newly infected with HIV continues to fall and has generally stabilised, a major concern for CAFOD is that there is a feeling among many countries in the global north that the Millennium Development goals regarding the virus have been met and therefore HIV has in many ways “had its day”. Development agencies are now placing greater emphasis on other issues such as climate change and although this is equally important this means future work on HIV is becoming increasingly uncertain. On the other hand, as long as we keep the momentum to address stigma, support people to seek and remain on treatment and provide quality care services, the numbers of new infections, the numbers of AIDS related deaths and HIV related stigma could reach zero within our lifetime. We must keep up the work so that the gains we have made this far are not lost.