Utilizing the untapped potential of religious leaders for the national HIV response: – A case of demand creation for HIV Services in Songea Region.

The Potential of Religious Leaders

The national council of People Living with HIV in Tanzania (NACOPHA) is implementing a component of the USAID’s five-year project – HEBU Tuyajenge, through Faith Community Initiative (FCI). The aim of FCI is to find, mobilize and facilitate men and children living with HIV to get access to HIV services; reduce stigma; and prevent violence against children in three regions of Dodoma, Morogoro and Ruvuma.

Access to HIV services for men and children and stigma and violence against children have been overwhelming problems in the overall HIV response in Tanzania. While access to HIV services for women and girls remains a concern, a growing body of evidence shows that men and adolescent boys have limited access to HIV services. Moreover, the number of men and children accessing HIV testing services including ART, and those who are virally suppressed is lower compared to other cohorts.

In response to the epidemic control, various initiatives responding to HIV and AIDS have been applied, yet the dream of achieving the epidemic control has not been attained. Engaging Faith-Based Organizations (FBOs) and religious leaders on HIV treatment literacy is considered vital in addressing misconceptions on HIV testing, ART, stigma reduction and prevention of Gender-based violence through messages of hope.

NACOPHA conducted a retreat for National level religious leaders from the five (5) mother body religious denominations on February 19th, 2020 to create awareness on the HIV challenge, thus seeking their support in creating demand for HIV services for men and children to fight stigma and prevent violence against children in Churches, Mosques, and other faith-based platforms. In the same line, a national symposium which involved high level religious leaders from the five religious denomination mother bodies i.e. CCT, TEC, CCPT, SDA and BAKWATA was held on March 10th, 2020. At the symposium commitments for engaging in HIV response were signed.

As a follow-up to the signing of the commitments, NACOPHA conducted an orientation for thirty-four (34) members of the Tanzania Network of Religious Leaders Living with or personally affected by HIV (TANERELA) in Dodoma. The trained religious leaders were from Morogoro, Dodoma and Ruvuma regions which are the FCI focus regions. The orientation increased leaders’ awareness of the HIV/AIDS situation in their own regions. They said leaders were informed of the signed commitments by high level religious leaders and their roles in the implementation. They were inducted to FCI component, which aims to empower them to disseminate new messages of hope for HIV service demand creation, stigma reduction and prevention of violence against children.

As the result of orientation, a representative from the Songea Lutheran diocese Rev. Dr. Pastor Samwel Mapunda shared the training resolutions with his bishop Rev. Amon Joel Mwenda. Following the debrief from Pastor Samwel, the Bishop created a Disaster Management Unit (DMU) for the diocese. Rev. Dr. Samwel Mapunda was appointed to lead the newly formed unit. This unit was tasked to (i) address the problem of low uptake of HIV services for men and children, (ii) fight stigma and (iii) prevent violence against children.

Pastor Mapunda was then freed from his other pastoral responsibilities and started visiting various parishes and other Lutheran Church owned institutions to spread the “new messages of hope” targeted at sensitizing men and children to seek HIV services and addressing HIV related stigma which induce fear that leads into low uptake of HIV services.

In response to sensitization campaigns, all parishes under the Lutheran church jointly agreed to organize various diocesan-level competitions, such as choir competitions that carried the message on HIV services, stigma reduction and prevention of violence against children.

“When the congregations heard the preaching that address HIV issues, they said it is very uncommon to hear this thing spoken about in the church. Indeed, HIV it is a real problem. We need to take action” …a member of the faithful was quoted as saying.

Evidence of the impact of religious leaders is now vividly seen in the Lutheran Church in Songea region. The DMU has continued to embark on campaigns to identify children living with HIV in the diocese.

“We focused on children accessing our services. We agreed to focus on children we interact with, those accessing our services including those at our care centers, and those whom we assist with nutritional support. We agreed that we need to know those children we care for and focus on wholistic care. We look into the child’s appearance, if its questionable, we organize a visit to the family, and talk with the caretaker politely. We are increasingly providing counseling and inform them that we are concerned about the total health of the children and we recommend an HIV test among other health conditions” …said Pastor Samwel Mapunda.

Through the support from Bishop Amon Joel of the Lutheran Diocese of Songea of 5,000,000/= (five million) Tanzanian shillings. The choir competitions attracted hundreds of people including government representatives and managed disseminate the messages of hope reaching 7,250 people.

“Messages through parish choirs were helpful in breaking the ice, hence making talking about HIV issues easier subject to talk about than before” …. said Pastor Samwel.

Through these completions, HIV testing were also conducted for 106 individuals and: –

56 (15 male, and 41 female) children aged 5-9 years,

50 (40 women and 10 men) adults were found to be HIV positive and all were linked into care and treatment services.

 “We commend you for this service, we were afraid to come forward for HIV testing because confidentiality issues” …a community member was quoted as saying.

The results noted in the Lutheran diocese of Songea mirrors what is happening in other dioceses and denominations that engaged religious leaders in HIV demand creation, stigma reduction and prevention of violence against children.

“We need to go further and reach more beneficiaries, but we have no means. I wrote to you (NACOPHA) for some support as the diocese is struggling to get more resources to scale up this mission” …. Rev. bishop Amon Joel of the Lutheran diocese of Songea

UNAIDS. (2016). Male engagement in the HIV response – A Platform for Action. https://www.unaids.org/sites/default/files/media_asset/JC2848_en.pdf

 

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