This World AIDS Day, I am looking forward to some honest and open talk about HIV and AIDS; some frank discussion about how to prevent HIV infection, in particular about the things we already know. Ensuring access to male and female condoms and the skills to negotiate their use; support services for victims of rape and abuse, such as post-exposure prophylaxis, emergency contraception and counseling; and comprehensive sex education. I’m anxious to hear about how we must finally get serious about addressing the diverse prevention needs of communities at risk of HIV infection, such as women, youth, people of color and men who have sex with men. After years of ineffective, ideologically-driven U.S. HIV prevention policies, I’m really looking forward to some straight talk about what works and what we have to do to get there.
So who will be speaking this truth about HIV and effective prevention on World AIDS Day?
Faith leaders are taking the charge, along with civil society and HIV-positive leaders. A broad coalition of faith-based and secular organizations is holding a World AIDS Day Interfaith Service on December 1, in Washington, D.C., that seeks to elevate faith and civil society voices on critical issues like comprehensive sex education and access to the full range of sexual and reproductive health services and information.
On a pre-service media briefing, we heard from HIV-positive and faith leaders about just how desperately the U.S. needs to promote prevention policies and programs at home and abroad that are comprehensive, integrated and based on evidence rather than ideology.
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Max Siegel, an American young man living with HIV remarked that narrow, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs failed to address his realities and did not equip him with the knowledge and tools to prevent infection. "In my gym teacher’s class, my male peers and I were told that sex was dangerous and that we should think more seriously about it when we grow up and marry. The teacher made clear that only one kind of sexuality, heterosexuality ending in marriage, was acceptable to talk about. Already aware of my sexual orientation, which is not heterosexual, I found no value in his speech. It did not speak to me and my life."
Grace Sedio, a woman living with HIV who is a human rights advocate in Botswana told us about the challenges women in developing countries face in protecting themselves from HIV infection. "For me as a grassroots woman living in Africa, a major problem is that most of us here are poor. Most of us are unemployed. This puts us at risk of getting infected. You find yourself having a partner that you can’t say no to sex, that you can’t say no to anything… and you find yourself pregnant…"
The great news is that faith leaders are speaking out about the urgent need for effective prevention efforts, in addition to the role that faith communities can play in providing honest talk and education about HIV and how to combat stigma and discrimination. "The faith community has an enormous capacity for creating awareness, education, and providing services that can prevent infection and give support and care to those affected," said Rev. Michael Schuenemeyer, Executive for Health and Wellness Advocacy, with the United Church of Christ.
These messages will be amplified at the Interfaith Observance on December 1. All are welcome to attend! The service will take place from 6:00p.m. – 7:30p.m. at the Foundry United Methodist Church, 1500 16th Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20036.
- Salma Abugidieri, Director, Peaceful Families Project
- Rev. Dr. Bernice Powell Jackson, North American President, World Council of Churches and Interim Pastor, Beecher Memorial United Church of Christ
- Patricia Nalls, Founder & Executive Director, The Women’s Collective
- Rev. William G. Sinkford, President, Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations
- Rabbi David Saperstein, Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
This World AIDS Day, on the eve of a new U.S. administration, I am hopeful that the U.S. will promote evidence, equality and human rights in its HIV prevention efforts and take a holistic approach to combating the global pandemic.
As Rev. William G. Sinkford stated on the media briefing, "there will [likely] be continued political pressure to pick and choose among our HIV/AIDS policy options. But a piecemeal approach simply will not work. We have to address the full social and economic contexts in which real people live or the pandemic will continue to spread. We won’t defeat AIDS without first defeating poverty, injustice and hatred."
The transcript of the World AIDS Day media briefing is available by clicking here and the flyer for the Interfaith Observance is available for download here (PDF).
Cosponsors include: Advocates for Youth; American Jewish World Service; Black AIDS Institute; Catholics for Choice; Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE); Foundry United Methodist AIDS Mission; General Board of Church & Society, United Methodist Church; International Women’s Health Coalition; National Council of Jewish Women; Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice; Secular Coalition of America; Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS); Union for Reform Judaism; Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations; United Church of Christ (Justice and Witness Ministries); Women of Reform Judaism; The Women’s Collective