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27 April 2012

Saving grace

Saving grace

In countries where AIDS and HIV victims are suffering due to stigma and a lack of care, a Christian charity is providing a practical and compassionate response.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a widow is raped by a gang of soldiers whose attack is so brutal that it leaves her with permanent damage, rendering her unable to work. Because she cannot work, her 12-year old daughter is forced to work in the fields so that the family can eat. On the way home from the fields one day, she is also raped by soldiers “over and over until she faints”.  This is how this young girl contracts HIV.

In India, where 90 per cent of women with HIV have been infected within their marriage or a long-term relationship, Grace is disowned by her family when – while pregnant with her second child – she finds out she has HIV. She now lives in the slums of Hyderabad and begs for food.

Heartbreaking

The stories of people affected by HIV around the world are heartbreaking. And there are so many of them. According UNAIDS, there are around 33 million people living with it; and around 4,900 die every day from AIDS-related illness. It’s a huge and devastating issue and one which faces widespread ignorance and stigma which only goes to aggravate the problem, leading to more infections and further heartbreak.

This is where ACET comes in. ACET (AIDS Care Education and Training) is working hard to provide a Christian response to the HIV and AIDS pandemic – a response that is unconditional and which demonstrates God’s love to all.

Present in more than 20 countries, ACET works with churches and church leaders in the areas to provide a response which meets people living with HIV in those nations at the point of their particular need.

In Nigeria, for example, one of the key countries that ACET focuses on, 800 people become infected every day and 600 people die from AIDS, as just one in five of the three million people who have the disease are able to get hold of life-prolonging antiretroviral drugs (ARVs).

The stigma of having HIV in Nigeria is so unbearable that many do not get diagnosed because they cannot face the possibility of being cast out by their family and shunned by their friends. This head-in-the-sand approach only leads to the further spread of HIV. Nigeria also has the highest number of AIDS orphans – some 2.5 million.

The picture of AIDS in the west African country is overwhelming. But ACET is working with churches to equip them to change the course of HIV and AIDS in their communities, as well as working with local government and NGOs.

Dr Patrick Dixon, who founded ACET in 1988 after meeting HIV patients who had been refused care at home or in hospices due to fear and stigma, recently visited Nigeria. “I met 20 church leaders who had just finished a week-long training course run by ACET Nigeria,” he says. “Up until now they would never have thought that HIV was an issue in their churches, but HIV testing had revealed that one in 10 of the leaders were infected.

“Many said they had had to repent before God of their past hostility to those with HIV. And they were returning home having made three promises to take action over the coming weeks. Most of them did far more than they had promised: one leader had reached over 16,000 people with prevention messages within weeks of the programme ending. Others had set up support groups for people with HIV, orphan programmes and so on. A huge result from a single week programme for 20 people.”

DRC

Part of ACET’s effectiveness lies in the fact that they cater to the specific needs of a country’s situation, rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach to AIDS.

In Nigeria, the overwhelming issue is stigma. But in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the biggest issue is rape. Dubbed the “rape capital of the world”, there are more than 1,000 women raped every single day. It is now such a part of the culture that 22.5 per cent of women in the DRC say they have experienced sexual violence by their husbands or partners, according to the American Journal of Public Health.

Once again, there is widespread ignorance about the disease, with just 17 per cent of 15 to 24-year-olds answering five basic questions about HIV and its transmission correctly. The Church in the DRC is ideally placed to do something about this, having been around since the 15th century and responsible for running not just parishes but health facilities and schools.

Yvonne Kavuo, country director in the DRC, is working to encourage churches to offer compassionate counselling to rape victims. “You cannot do HIV/AIDS work in DRC without talking about gender-based violence,” she says.

“It’s only when you talk to someone who has been raped that you truly understand the magnitude of the trauma. But talking about it is really difficult for victims, and you have to earn their trust.”

Hope

The name for ACET’s Nireekshana headquarters translates as ‘hope’. And that is what Drs Sujai and Lavanya Suneetha, directors of the centre, are bringing to the high numbers of people being affected by HIV. In Andhra Pradesh, where the charity is based, HIV infection rates are the highest in India, with more than 750,000 people affected. The majority of women living with HIV have been infected by a partner or husband, but when forced onto the streets or into the slums, many have no choice but to work in the sex trade in order to provide for themselves or their children – perpetuating the spread of HIV.

The directors’ medical background means they are able to give holistic attention to people with HIV. ACET Nireekshana runs three clinics run by a team of medics supported by trained volunteers and staff, and also provides social care, as well as HIV testing and counselling.

In order to reduce the fear of being tested, ACET recruits volunteers in the area – who are often HIV positive themselves – to go out into the community and persuade people at risk to get tested. Those tested positive are then referred back to ACET for further care.

Action

With such vast numbers, such heartbreaking stories and a problem that in some areas seems to be spreading uncontrollably, the Church has a huge role to play in being good news within these communities. It is the hope of ACET that churches will catch the vision and see the need and how they can help.

Patrick Dixon says: “The answer to HIV is a global people movement: this is about mobilising entire villages, towns and cities.

“When people start talking about HIV, what it is, how it spreads, about testing, treatment and how people can protect themselves, then infection slows down. “When parents talk with their children, church leaders and their congregations, teachers with their pupils, office workers with their peers, and villagers with their neighbours, then behaviour starts to change.

“When people with HIV feel accepted and able to tell their own stories; when families are able to grieve openly for relatives who have died; then the message grows in power.”

For more information, visit acet-international.org

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