“What are the two things that you will find in the most remote areas of the world?” Pernessa C. Seele, Founder and CEO of The Balm in Gilead, asked the audience of the event, Women, HIV and the Faith Community: Bringing the Voices of African Women to Washington, DC. The audience was quizzically silent for a moment before Seele responded, “A bottle of Coca-Cola and a Church.”
Sponsored by the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE), UNAIDS, International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS (ICW Global), and The Balm in Gilead, the event featured women religious leaders from Kenya, Tanzania and Zimbabwe who are leading HIV programs in faith-based communities across Africa. Faith-based organizations (FBO) and local religious communities play a critical role in the fight against HIV/AIDS; in fact, the World Health Organization estimates that faith-based groups provide between 30 percent and 70 percent of all health care in Africa. FBOs build and run hospitals and clinics, train and employ health care workers, provide care and support for orphans and vulnerable children, and educate their congregations and communities. They are also major funders of global health, tapping into faith-based networks across the world for donations.
Despite this, many international health groups are reluctant to work with FBOs. Due to religious beliefs, FBOs may not support some interventions endorsed by the broader public health community. Public positions and statements from prominent members of the faith community can, in some cases, increase stigma or discrimination. Public debates within the faith-based community on condoms and family planning have highlighted these tensions. Such issues can create mistrust between FBOs and other groups, leading to unwillingness to work with FBOs despite their valuable contributions to health.
However, by refusing to work with FBOs, the panel argued, the global health community is ignoring an important ally in the fight against HIV/AIDS. FBOs are not monolithic in nature, and panelists urged global health practitioners not to be so quick to make assumptions about FBOs and religious communities. Even if specific FBOs or religious communities are unwilling to endorse certain health interventions, they can provide other useful services that should not be ignored. Partnerships within and outside of the faith-based community are key to providing the full range of services all individuals need to stay healthy.
Panelists at the event described their experiences working with FBOs. Some of their experiences were positive, others negative, but all the panelists agreed that FBOs have a significant and important role to play in ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic. FBOs represent one of the most sustainable ways to provide HIV services; they have existed in communities long before the epidemic started, and will continue to exist long after it has ended. In order to fully capitalize on the services FBOs provide, it is important to build strong, thoughtful, communicative, mutually respectful partnerships to provide all individuals with a full range of services for a healthy life.