“Asian churches must be more relevant in their health and healing ministry, especially in addressing the vulnerabilities of people living with HIV and AIDS (PLHIV). Embracing the ‘other’ amidst vulnerability makes unique the identity of the Body of Christ as broken for others. The Church is called to stand against conventional norms and become truly open for all,” affirmed the participants of the Christian Conference of Asia’s (CCA) online consultation on the ‘Vulnerabilities of HIV and AIDS – Challenges and Issues of Human Sexuality, Reproductive Health, and Gender Discrimination’.
The three-day consultation, organised as a virtual platform, was part of CCA’s ongoing programme, Action Together in Combatting HIV and AIDS in Asia (ATCHAA).
The consultation was held from 2 to 4 September 2020 and attended by about forty registered participants across Asia. The facilitators of the consultation included representatives from UNAIDS, faith-based organisations, and civil society organisations dealing with HIV and AIDS advocacy.
Delivering the opening address, Dr Mathews George Chunakara, the General Secretary of the CCA, said, “Despite many challenges we are all facing today under the conditions of the COVID-19 crisis and lockdowns across the world, dilemmas are still commonplace in many countries. CCA has initiated this special online programme to enhance the capacities of member churches and councils to respond to the emerging concerns and to become more inclusive and relevant for people living with HIV and AIDS.”
The CCA General Secretary further stated that as HIV and AIDS affected sexual and reproductive health and wellbeing of people, knowledge and skills must be given to effectively address the concerns and problems of PLHIV.
While affirming the importance of addressing the vulnerabilities of HIV and AIDS in Asian communities, Dr Chunakara added that it was part of CCA’s faith and witness to enable its constituencies to openly address these issues, despite multiple challenges and constraints, and successfully combat HIV and AIDS in the region.
The first session was jointly presented by representatives from UNAIDS Asia Pacific Regional Support Team, Dr Salil Panakadan and Stela Sacaliuc. Their presentation on ‘HIV, Human Sexuality, and Reproductive Health Situation in Asia’ addressed key data points and the intersectionalities that exist between HIV, sexuality, and reproductive health rights.
The UNAIDS officials stated that although in 2015 all UN member states had mutually agreed to lower the rate of new infections to below 500,000 by 2020, the goal had not been met until now. The reason for this, they stressed, was that the Asian countries, in particular, were not doing well given the social amnesia of the political leaders and health sector leaders in the region who assume “AIDS is over.” However, the virus still affected the most marginalised in society.
In addition to addressing HIV and AIDS, Dr Panakadan called for the simultaneous redressal of sexual and reproductive health issues as well. He highlighted the issues of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR). Given that gender inequality, poverty, stigma, discrimination, and marginalisation of vulnerable groups affected access to SRHR and HIV services, there was a clear and imminent need to integrate SRHR and HIV services at the policy, programme, and provider levels.
Ms Sacaliuc addressed the ‘elephant in the room’ while discussing the HIV response, namely, gender-based violence (GBV). “GBV is an extreme manifestation of gender inequality and encompasses physical, sexual, economic, structural, and emotional violence. Marginalised groups among key populations experience the highest rates of GBV and are also more susceptible to acquiring HIV. GBV undermines the HIV response.”
Saying, “Faith helps cope with fear,” Ms Sacaliuc also proposed actions that faith communities could undertake, such as (i) integrating HIV and AIDS information into the theological curriculum; (ii) increasing public understanding; (iii) encouraging congregations to get tested; (iv) providing pastoral care and counselling for those infected; (v) addressing and opposing practices that sustain sexual and gender-based violence; and, (vi) creating safe and comfortable spaces for adolescents and young adults to discuss issues of HIV and sexuality.
Justin Bionat, the Executive Director of Youth Voices Count, spoke about ‘Understanding Vulnerabilities: Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and Expression (SOGIE)’. He explained the relevance of SOGIE to HIV and AIDS awareness, treatment, care, and support. Approaching work with a rights-based approach, he emphasised, was critical not just for accessibility but also affordability, quality, and non-discrimination.
Dr Ronald Lalthanmawia, CCA Programme Coordinator for Prophetic Diakonia and Advocacy, presented ‘The Medical Perspective in Understanding the Correlation between HIV, Human Sexuality, and Gender Justice’, and addressed some common concerns. Dr Lalthanmawia explained the vulnerabilities of HIV and AIDS key populations. These included (i) anatomical vulnerabilities; (ii) criminalisation and lack of laws for protection; (iii) lack of educational facilities; (iv) lack of employment opportunities; (v) stigma and discrimination; and, (vi) susceptibility to high-risk behaviours.
Gopi Shankar, from the vulnerable community, spoke on ‘Voices from the Community: Social Perspective in Understanding the Correlation of HIV, Human Sexuality, and Gender Justice’. Gopi shared several anecdotes and stories about their experiences of the community, such as the challenges, practical difficulties, and discrimination that were faced daily, thus sensitising the consultation’s participants to their plight.
Rev. Carleen Nomorosa, an HIV Programme Coordinator of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines delivered a presentation on ‘Created in the Image of God: Theological Perspective on HIV, Human Sexuality, and Gender Justice’. She shared the theological reflections on Mark 2:1–12.
“The story in Mark tells us and shows us perspectives from different angles—Jesus, the crowd, the four people carrying the paralytic, the scribes, the owner of the house, the paralytics, and so on—about forgiving sins and healing the sick. Jesus reverses the logic of the traditional assumption that sickness is the divine judgement for sin and shatters the intersection of sin and sickness,” she claimed.
“Our challenge today is to allow our imaginations, discomfort, and distress to be confronted by the faith of the paralytic’s friends and the paralytic himself and look beyond what at first appear to be impossible obstacles, and carve out fresh openings for human liberation and deliverance. We must embrace an alternative consciousness; we have to revolutionise our ministry and advocacies,” Rev. Nomorosa emphatically stated.
Rev. Among Jamir, a pastor from the Nagaland Baptist Church Council in India and former Coordinator of Ecumenical Solidarity for HIV and AIDS (ESHA) with the National Council of Churches in India, delivered an insightful presentation on ‘Towards an Inclusive Church within an Inclusive Community: Churches’ Response to Vulnerable Communities’.
“The Church can no longer afford to isolate itself from pressing issues. As a community, the Church must practice belongingness and inclusion; the idea of community entails the celebration of diversities and not the erasure of diversities,” said Rev. Jamir. He also said that the issues of sexuality and gender were one of the biggest divisive issues of contemporary times and that the Church’s moral tradition and taboos exclude certain groups of people, thus relegating them to the margins and making them victims of stigma and discrimination.
Rev. Jamir also called upon the participants to revisit Chapter 10 of The Acts of the Apostles, and inculcate the idea of ‘radical inclusion’ in their communities. “Peter’s transgressive actions in Acts 10 led to the unfixing/undoing of the practice of exclusion that was considered normative. The Spirit of God worked through Peter in dismantling and deconstructing the normative requirements imposed upon the Gentile Christians. It is only in identifying with the ‘other’ that the Church truly transgresses the oppressive and normative structures. The Body of Christ must embrace its distinct dimension of ‘otherness’ and assume a positionality that locates its divine calling in the struggles of the people in the margins,” said Rev. Jamir.
The participants developed practical suggestions for engagement of churches in their local contexts.