At the 16th International AIDS Conference, members of the African clergy are speaking out against stigma and discrimination. They’re speaking from experience because these clergy are HIV positive. VOA’s Joe De Capua reports from Toronto.
Patricia Sawo is pastor of the Deliverance Church in Kitali, Kenya. She’s part of a delegation to the AIDS conference from the African Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV and AIDS, or ANERELA.
“We are not caregivers as such. We are people living with HIV and AIDS as church leaders. And we are on the forefront fighting stigma that leads to shame, denial, discrimination in action and misaction,” she says.
Sawo says it’s important for members of the clergy, who are infected with the AIDS virus, to set an example.
“For us, as church leaders, to come out openly and talk about our HIV status, it’s a real impact. Because as church leaders we are looked at as role models in the society.” she says.
How do congregations react to the news that their minister is HIV positive?
She says, “It differs from congregation to congregation depending on the level of information that each church had. It’s been a struggle, but at the same time a stepping stone.”
She says speaking as one who has experienced stigma and discrimination first hand, her message is one of acceptance and a non-judgmental attitude towards people living with HIV.
“The most difficult part of it is looking at yourself as a person living with HIV not very sure where to go the next day. Because HIV is a long term thing. You need treatment for life. And yet we hear the limitation of drugs and all that. Very few people in Kenya have access to drugs,” she says.
The Deliverance Church pastor says she was told in 1999 she should be on anti-retroviral drugs. But she could not afford them. She says she survived through the generosity of friends who helped keep her strong by making sure she had a healthy diet.
Sawo says when it comes to AIDS she wants everyone to remember one important thing about the clergy.
“Religious leaders are human beings like any other human beings,” she says.