Interfaith + Catholic Pre-Conferences on HIV and AIDS

As mentioned in my last post, I am in Washington DC for 10 days for events around the XIX International AIDS Conference. This month marks 10 years that I have been engaged in HIV and AIDS-related work and this is my 4th time attending an International AIDS Conference. Am I really getting that old?

International AIDS Conferences are held once every two years in various parts of the globe (past conferences I’ve attended were in Vienna, Mexico City and Toronto). They typically attract over 20,000 people working in the field of HIV and AIDS, including scientists and researchers, policymakers, health professionals, people living with HIV, civil society activists and faith-based organizations. This is the first time an International AIDS Conference has been held in the United States in over 20 years, largely due to travel restrictions the United States government previously placed on people living with HIV to enter the country, which were formally lifted in 2010.

Prior to the main conference, there’s a variety of pre-conferences to choose from for people engaged in all aspects of the HIV response. There was the LIVING 2012 Summit for people living with HIV, the HIV/AIDS Law and Practice Conference, the International Leadership Summit on Housing, and a pre-conference for Men who have Sex with Men (note: this lingo is preferred to “gay and bisexual men” in the HIV and AIDS context because it’s believed to be more inclusive language). Since I often have done consulting work with faith-based organizations in the context of HIV and AIDS and international development issues, I opted to divide my time between the Interfaith Pre-Conference on HIV and the International Catholic AIDS Pre-Conference.

Over 400 people attended “Taking Action for Health, Dignity and Justice: The Interfaith Pre-Conference on HIV” held at Howard University on July 20-21. All faiths were welcome, but most participants represented either the Christian, Jewish, Hindu or Muslim traditions.

A plenary session on Friday morning looked at the concept of “Dignity” from a faith lens. Panelists included four people living with HIV and a United Church of Christ bishop who works with transgender communities in San Francisco. Among those on the panel were the first Muslim woman in South Africa to publicly disclose her HIV-positive status, a Hindu Swami from Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean who teaches and uses yoga and meditation as a way to cope with HIV, an Anglican priest from South Africa who co-founded the International Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV and a young man from Mexico who works as an activist with the organization dance4life.

One of the most interesting presentations I heard during the workshop sessions was on opportunities for faith-based organizations to integrate family planning with HIV and AIDS services, which was presented by a staff member from Christian Connections for International Health. According to this US-based organization with a large Evangelical Christian membership:

“Christian Connections for International Health (CCIH) supports family planning, because it helps women and men have the number of children they want and can care for, at the intervals they choose. Family planning prevents unintended pregnancies and abortion. It contributes to the goal of faith-based organizations (FBOs) to improve health and well-being worldwide.”

As the media and the broader HIV and AIDS activist community often demonize FBOs as being opposed to all forms of family planning, I think the above quote is important to share.

The Catholic Pre-Conference began with a plenary on Faith, Spirtuality and Pastoral Care in the Midst of HIV. One of the main and essential components of comprehensive HIV and AIDS care that many FBOs pride themselves on is the integration of psychosocial and spiritual support into the healing process.

Although an estimated 82% of the world’s population adhere to a religion, addressing the spiritual needs of people living with or affected by HIV and AIDS is oftentimes forgotten.

I also attended a workshop on the need for a person-centered response to the HIV pandemic. It was a concept I was not previously familiar with, but I learned that it focuses both on responding to the fundamental needs of a person living with or affected by HIV and on building a culture of individual responsibility.  Central to this response is the concept of upholding dignity.

Lastly, I presented on a panel on the Global Plan to Eliminate New HIV Infections in Children by 2015. Earlier this year I served as principal invesigator of research on the contribution of Catholic Church-related organizations to the Global Plan, which was formally launched last night and will be presented again later this week.

The main International AIDS Conference began today and my schedule includes an engagement tour to a local AIDS service organization, film screenings and Global Village activities. I will surely have more to report on later this week, and next time I also promise to include pictures.

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