More than 30 years after the first case of HIV/AIDS was reported, the disease continues to pose challenges for governments and communities across the world, but particularly in Southern Africa. Response to the disease is hindered by contextual influences, which vary between countries and cultural groups. With HIV/AIDS, one size does not fit all. The complexity of this disease is still not fully understood and information regarding its spread and prevalence is often fluid and unreliable. Communities’ emotional reaction to HIV/AIDS, including stigmatising, plays a role in this scenario. FBOs (including churches) are uniquely positioned to provide HIV/AIDS education and prevention messages through their extensive networks that reach even the most remote villages. However, during the era of HIV/AIDS, FBOs or their members have been the target of criticism. They have been accused of promoting stigmatising and discriminatory attitudes based on fear and prejudice, of pronouncing harsh moral judgements on those infected and of reducing the issues of AIDS to mere moral issues.
The primary research question in this research focused on determining the nature and extent of HIV/AIDS-related stigma reported by aspiring faith-based leaders. The study questionnaires were completed by aspiring faith-based leaders who participated in Choose Life training programmes. These aspiring faith-based leaders were used as an indirect measure of stigma in their respective FBOs. The assumption is made that the attitude of faith-based leaders may affect the communities they serve. A KAP survey was used to determine the knowledge, attitudes and practices within these organisations. A group of 133 aspiring faith-based leaders who attended a HospiVision training programme, Choose Life, participated in the study. Non-parametric tests were used in the analysis of the data. Test include Spearman Rho correlations, Kruskal-Wallis and Mann-Whitney.
It was found that respondents are knowledgeable about HIV/AIDS. Despite their high level of knowledge, there is still fear and worry about sharing eating or drinking utensils with those infected. Unrealistic fear of HIV transmission is one of the building blocks of HIV-related stigma. Respondents were generally unaware of people living with the virus in their congregation. This demonstrates that disclosure of HIV status is relatively low. It may be a fear of stigma that represents a barrier to disclosure. A high percentage of respondents (44%) indicated that they would feel ashamed should the virus infect them or someone in their family (28%). They were, however, more accepting of other people who are infected (only 12% indicated PLWHA should be ashamed). These contradictions make it difficult to understand the level of stigmatising and the reasons behind the responses. In spite of prevention campaigns run by various organisations, stigma and discrimination still exist and this may hamper our response to the illness.
The study was relatively small, but its results are similar to those of earlier studies conducted nationally among faith-based leaders. Stigma and discrimination remain factors that have to be considered in all programmes developed to address the current HIV crisis. Even when knowledge about the disease is significant and respondents are well educated, some stigma still prevails.
FBOs are amongst the institutions in society that shape the values and attitudes that guide responses to illness and vulnerability and that support appropriate and compassionate responses. This research shows that FBOs have an important role to play in promoting religious beliefs that confront stigma and in encouraging positive dialogue to counter damaging thought patterns in communities.