UNAIDS Pledges to Strengthen Collaboration With Faith-Based Groups

Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo, a delegate with Caritas Internationalis, addresses church leaders Wednesday at a panel about the role of churches in providing care for HIV/AIDS patients. (PHOTO BY - LAURA FIGUEROA)

The doors of St. Mary’s Outreach Center in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, were shut for a few weeks in December.

Its closing meant about 900 patients living with HIV/AIDS could not get testing services, prevention workshops and treatment.

St. Mary’s shutdown was emblematic of the funding shortfalls facing many of the churches and faith-based organizations fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS on a grass-roots level. The clinic, funded by the Roman Catholic Church, eventually reopened, but struggled with declining donations.

“There are people in dire need of these medications, but funding is always one of the biggest challenges,” said Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo, a delegate for Caritas Internationalis, a philanthropic arm of the Catholic Church that finances programs in underdeveloped nations.

Vitillo spoke Wednesday at Holy Family Church in New York City, where a workshop organized by Caritas Internationalis and other Catholic charities addressed the role of faith-based organizations in providing access to HIV treatments. Worldwide, there are about nine million people living with the disease who cannot afford the costly life-prolonging medications.

Moving forward, the collaboration between UNAIDS and church organizations should be strengthened, said Dr. Paul De Lay, deputy executive director of UNAIDS.
“We have underutilized faith-based organizations in the past,” De Lay told the group of about 100 representatives of church and social-service agencies gathered at the church. Their meeting was part of the events affiliated with the 2011 U.N. High Level Meeting on AIDS.

While UNAIDS has not typically financed faith-based outreach efforts in the past, De Lay said the agency would work to draw more attention to the services provided worldwide through church organizations.

“From our side, what follows in 2012, 2013 and moving forward does recognize the role that you are already playing,” De Lay said.

Already, UNAIDS has called on church leaders worldwide to help in the effort to reduce violence and rape.

“Women and girls are most affected by sexual violence and are most vulnerable to HIV,” said UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé in a March speech in London. “UNAIDS will work closely with faith-based organizations to ensure the dignity and protection of women and girls.”

Meera Shankar, director of Empower, a women’s outreach group in Tamilnadu, India, said church groups were crucial for treating women who came looking for help.
“We can get the word out there about prevention, but once someone is diagnosed with the virus, it is the faith-based groups that run clinics and offer support systems,” said Shankar, who attended Wednesday’s meeting. “They fill a void that some of our smaller groups can’t fill.”

Shankar has worked for the past 15 years raising HIV/AIDS awareness among the “slums and sex workers” of Tamilnadu, she said. When Shankar first conducted workshops on sexual protection, it was almost taboo to speak to women about protecting themselves, but now, she said, the life-saving messages are welcome.

“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if it’s a faith-based group or nondenominational,” Shankar said. “It’s the end result that matters. If we can work together to stop the spread of the virus, then that is what will matter most.”

LAURA FIGUEROA
UNITY AIDSNews

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