For many years in Tanzania, HIV response was mainly taken as the role of the government and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) since the first HIV incidence in Tanzania way back in 1980’s. High level religious institutions were not intensively involved in HIV response rather it was just individualized response which was influenced or forced by government rules and regulations that religious institutions with health care facilities should provide HIV services. Addressing the problem of HIV was not mainstreamed in the pastoral responsibility of sheikhs and pastors. This resulted into dead silence regarding demand creation for HIV services, Treatment adherence, stigma reduction and prevention of violence against children living with HIV from religious perspective.
Faith-based organizations (FBOs) are grass root organizations active locally but also on an international scale. In Tanzania there are five mother religious institutions namely Muslim Council of Tanzania (BAKWATA), Tanzania Episcopal Conference (TEC), Christian Pentecoste Chirch of Tanzania (CPCT), Seventh Dy Adventist (SDA) and Christian Council in Tanzania (CCT).
More than 90% of Tanzanians subscribe to a certain religion and therefore engaging religious leaders and religious institutions in HIV response will have great impact to the pandemic. Religious leaders and their institutions reach far down to the grassroot level, are highly trusted and respected by the community and have permanent and sustainable structures in the community. Furthermore, NACOPHA strongly believe that religious leaders have the capacity and experience in service provision especially in remote areas; they have high community impact and have social, cultural and moral legitimacy.
As one of the key priority of the Hebu Tuyajenge project is to engage faith based communities to understand the epidemic, raise community awareness and bring critical prevention and treatment interventions to reach men and children with testing and other services as well as enhancing justice for children. NACOPHA in collaboration with the Parliament of Tanzania (Speaker’s Office) organized a high-level religious retreat bringing together high level Religious Leaders of the five mother Faith Based Organizations in Tanzania. The retreat aimed at raising awareness and understanding on the magnitude of HIV and the need for their involvement in addressing HIV epidemic in Tanzania. The retreat also aimed at making the religious leaders use their position and infrastructures in supporting the government’s efforts to achieve 95 95 95 goals by 2030. Following the retreat, high level religious leaders managed to brainstorm and came up with the draft proposal of commitments to end HIV related stigma and child safeguarding to be signed at the National level symposium.
On 10th March, 2020 in Dodoma, NACOPHA again in collaboration with the Parliament of Tanzania convened a national level symposium hosted by the Speaker of the Parliament of Tanzania with the Prime Minister being the guest of honor and it was attended by all five mother body high level religious leaders in person. During the symposium, top level religious leaders signed commitments towards ending HIV related stigma. They commited themselves and their institutions to meaningfully engage in the national HIV response in Tanzania. The signing of the commitments which are very comprehensive, was witnessed by the Prime Minister of United Republic of Tanzania Hon. Kassim Majaliwa Majaliwa who also attended in person as the guest of honor. This event was remarkable since it had never happened in Tanzania bringing all high-level religious leaders, the high level government and political leaders to address HIV issues and commit themselves towards joining hands with Government, Parliament, NACOPHA and other stakeholders to end all forms of HIV related stigma and discrimination as well as child safeguarding in the country.
The signed commitments will now act as a contract from the high level religious leaders to their pastoral agents, followers and institutions that falls under the five mother religious institutions in Tanzania to engage in HIV response.
The signed commitments have started to cascade in the community whereby religious leaders at regional and council levels have been appointed and attended training on demand creation for HIV testing, Treatment adherence, Viral load suppression and violence prevention against children living with HIV, (Dodoma CC, Kogwa DC and Bahi DC) 48 leaders attended – seven (7) females and 41 males.The trained leaders are disseminating the gained knowledge to their fellow religious leaders who are then mobilizing their followers to demand HIV services and prevent child violence.
On the otherhand, religious institutions have started to mainstream HIV into their plans for example BAKWATA during their annual region general assembly held on 27th July, 2020 (a total of 60 sheikhs (57 males and three (3) females) invited NACOPHA to present on FCI engagement and the high-level religious leaders commitments signed during the national symposium. BAKWATA Morogoro showed their commitment to collaborate in executing the signed commitments and in implementing the FCI. Additionally,the Catholic diocese of Morogoro during their quarterly meeting held on 8th July , 2020 where by 72 priests attended, invited NACOPHA to present the FCI and disseminate the high level religious leaders commitments.The Catholic diocese of Morogoro showed its commitment to implement the commitments. Furthermore,the Pentecostal Churches of Tanzania in their annual meeting held on 9th July, 2020 brought together 100 bishops (95 males and 5 females) and invited NACOPHA to present. The bishops anonymously promised to engage in HIV interventions.
Generally it is observed that the high level religious leaders understood the gravity of the problem and are more than willing to work hand in hand with CSOs and the government towards ending HIV epidemic in the country. This is evidenced by a remark from one of these leaders who said the following on the day of signing the commitments to end HIV related stigma signed on the 10th March 20202;
“The Holy Quran warns Muslims against three vices; laughing at someone in trouble, laughing at some one mourning and laughing at someone sick….People Living with HIV should be accepted, respected and loved”. Says Mufti