Regional consultation a first of its kind under the Multi-Country South Asia Global Fund HIV Programme
Religious leaders and faith-based organizations have a crucial role to play in upholding the human rights of sexual minorities and ensuring appropriate and accessible health services, including for men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender people, participants affirmed at a South Asia Regional Consultation on Faith, Cultural Diversity, Access to Health and HIV this past week in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
The consultation, which took place on 18-19 August, was organized by Bandhu Social Welfare Society (BSWS) and was the first of its kind to be supported under the Multi-Country South Asia Global Fund HIV Programme, for which the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is the Principal Recipient. The Asia Pacific Coalition on Male Sexual Health (APCOM), one of the community regional Sub-Recipients of the grant, also supported the consultation. The meeting provided an avenue for open, inclusive exploratory discussions on religious perspectives on sexual and gender identity and health rights, in the context of HIV.
In countries across South Asia, MSM and transgender people as well as other sexual minorities often face harsh stigma and discrimination and social exclusion based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. As a result, these populations, along with other vulnerable groups such as sex workers and persons who inject drugs, encounter formidable barriers to accessing vital health care, including HIV and STI prevention, care and support services.
“Religious leaders can, if they want, do so much to help remove stigma and discrimination against our communities and sensitize society as a whole,” said Shale Ahmed, Executive Director of Bandhu Social Welfare Society (BSWS). “Faith-based organizations should actively reach out to those who are most vulnerable to HIV through the prism of humanity and compassion that all religions advocate.”
The consultation brought together religious leaders and delegates from faith-based organizations, along with representatives from MSM and transgender civil society organizations from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Also joining the meeting were representatives from the governments of Bangladesh and Bhutan; the Asian Interfaith Network on HIV and AIDS (AINA); the International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research in Bangladesh (ICCDR) which is a key organizer of the International Congress on HIV and AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP) in Dhaka next year; UNDP; the Asia Pacific Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS (APN+); and APCOM.
Nick Beresford, Deputy Country Director, UNDP Bangladesh, pointed to the need for inclusion and empowerment of all to achieve resilient societies and nations and to ensure sustainable human development. “Regardless of the religions and faiths we individually may ascribe to, our shared values of human rights can help us find a way forward on many complex issues,” he said. “As Bangladesh moves out of poverty and into middle income country status, it is important to ensure that all of its people can enjoy equal access to national institutions and benefits, including health services.”
The noted Islamic scholar Dr Akhtarul Wasey, Commissioner of Linguistic Minorities under the Ministry of Minority Affairs, Government of India, contributed to the discussion via a prepared statement. “We all know there are different lifestyles which not all of us might be in agreement with, and we all know that many are at high risk of or living with HIV,” he said. “In my humble opinion, we should come forward to help them. We should keep in mind that stigma and discrimination always result in silence and denial which are more deadly than this epidemic. Though these are very delicate issues, rather being judgmental, we should be considerate and compassionate and simultaneously pray for their well-being.”
The consultation featured a session led by APCOM that demonstrated how faith leaders can be sensitized to HIV issues, including those of stigma and discrimination, via the innovative SAVE Toolkit developed by the International Network of Religious Leaders living with or personally affected by HIV and AIDS (INERELA+). “SAVE is such an effective approach to encouraging religious leaders to use scripture not to condemn but to empower our communities,” explained Midnight Poonkasetwattana, Executive Director, APCOM. “Through our growing partnership with INERELA+ and AINA, since our fruitful collaboration at ICAAP 2013 and AIDS 2014, APCOM hopes to reach out to more and more faith leaders across our region in the coming years to strengthen our Faith Working Group. Many MSM and transgender persons are also persons of faith, and yearn for the embrace of their church, mosque or temple. Why should the solace of religion and faith be denied to our communities, especially if such an embrace can enhance self-respect and social equality, and drive health-seeking behaviour?”
Two intensive days of dialogue and breakout sessions resulted in an action plan devised by the national delegations that will guide religious leaders and faith-based organizations in their engagement with sexual and gender minorities to jointly and urgently address an epidemic which, in country after country across Asia and the Pacific, is concentrated primarily in MSM and transgender populations.
“If you go through the outlines of each country’s draft work plan, you’ll see an impressive commitment by the faith groups to working together with community leaders to gain a deeper understanding of MSM and transgender issues, as well as tackling the stigma and discrimination that remain at the heart of the HIV challenge,” said Anna Chernyshova, Programme Manager, UNDP. “This stated commitment includes a determination to foster constant dialogue between faith groups and marginalized communities across South Asia and beyond, to reach out to other faith leaders and sensitize them in turn, and to work closely with government stakeholders to allocate more resources to address HIV in our communities. The Dhaka consultation has created a strong foundation upon which we must now collectively build for the future.”
Bandhu Social Welfare Society:
INERELA and the SAVE Toolkit:
UNDP Asia-Pacific Regional Centre:
Shale Ahmed, Executive Director, Bandhu Social Welfare Society
+880 2 935 6868 | shale@bandhu‐bd.org
Roy Wadia, APCOM Faith Working Group Chair /APCOM Vice Chair
+91 98205 28007 | email@example.com
Anna Chernyshova, Programme Manager, Multi-Country South Asia Global Fund HIV Programme, UNDP APRC