‘My Status, My Health, My Life’

To mark World Aids Day, Duncan Dormor and Artwell Sipinyu reflect on an Anglican Church in Zimbabwe programme that is transforming lives with its clear message of love and inclusion.

I’m 40 years old, HIV-positive, and a single mother with four children. Five years ago, when I discovered my HIV status, I was side-lined by my community. No-one wanted to share utensils with me, and my children were mocked by their classmates. I felt so much shame and suffering that I even contemplated suicide. I think I would have done so except I was worried about who would look after my children. (Linda, Diocese of Harare)

Low self-esteem, suicidal tendencies, isolation, and family disintegration: These are just some of the effects of the stigma associated with living with HIV and AIDS. Fear of discrimination also reduces the likelihood people will come forward for testing and therefore receive the care, support and treatment they need.

But a lot has happened in the last five years: A few weeks ago I had the immense privilege of meeting members of the St Francis Community, in the Diocese of Masvingo, campaigning for HIV/AIDS stigma reduction within the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe. Dynamic, inspiring, evangelistic, alongside their parish priest this largely female group had powerful stories to tell and a bold message of Jesus’s inclusive love:

They are just one of the many groups across the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe (ACZ) at the forefront of tackling stigma and discrimination – and their consequences. Helping people to live positively, education and wellbeing programmes have had a profound impact on individuals and communities.

In 2014, a survey revealed that Linda’s experience was not uncommon: Two thirds (65%) of those with HIV/AIDS had experienced one or more forms of stigma and discrimination, and nearly a third (31%) had been verbally abused, harassed or threatened.

Following a series of consultative meetings the ACZ Bishops boldly took the initiative and launched the HIV Stigma and Discrimination Reduction programme, engaging USPG to accompany the church as they sought a reduction of HIV stigma and discrimination.

Since 2015, the ACZ’s Stigma Reduction Programme has been training church leaders on issues of HIV and HIV stigma. HIV stigma has now become more mainstream as a topic of church sermons, and people who have disclosed their status are welcomed into the church, and offered the support they need. There are ‘Wellness Groups’ that provide a support network to people living with HIV. As well as emotional support, the programme has helped to develop sustainable livelihoods through income generation projects such as peanut butter making, bee keeping, rearing chickens, and developing food gardens.

One of the aims of the Anglican Church of Zimbabwe’s Stigma Reduction Programme is to encourage people to come forward for HIV testing and counselling. Knowing their HIV status means they can make informed decisions about their life so that they can live healthily in the future. Once diagnosed people can receive medication to help them live longer, be advised on a diet that is suitable for their condition, and join wellness groups that provide emotional and practical support.

Support received from the Bishops and clergy has been critical in realising the goal of reducing HIV related stigma across the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe, and the ministry continues to expand into other areas in Zimbabwe which have not been reached. But the evidence also shows that this intervention has raised the profile of Anglican Council as a church leading from the front in addressing not only spiritual needs of its congregants but also their well-being and welfare. Bishop Godfrey Tawonezvi, the National Chair and bishop of Masvingo sums it simply:

‘The project has put the church on the map of Zimbabwe’.

Between 2015 and 2019:

  • 655 church leaders have been trained in addressing HIV related stigma, and are now engaging with people living with HIV.
  • There has been an increase in the number of people living with HIV participating in public forums, 90 such role models are actively sharing their stories.
  • 58 Wellness groups have been established in the Anglican Church and communities to support people living with HIV and AIDS.
  • In total 407,608 people (124,484 men, 275,696 women and 7,428 young adults) have been reached by the programme and at the end of the three years the stigma index showed a very significant drop from 65% to just 21%.

Linda has been one of those who has benefitted from Stigma Reduction and now encourages others to get tested for HIV:

“Then in 2017, the stigma and discrimination reduction programme came to my church – and I am so grateful for this wonderful programme. It came when I was on the brink of giving up, but their teachings changed everything. I felt accepted so much so that I was able to openly declare my HIV status in church, and rather than being rejected I was elected to be a church warden. I also joined the local support group, and now I encourage others to disclose their status.”

Artwell Sipinyu, National Coordinator for the Anglican Relief and Development in Zimbabwe (ARDeZ) added:

As we join together with the rest of the World to commemorate the World AIDS Day, we celebrate the great strides that have been achieved at National level in the response to the HIV Epidemic. As the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe we have also made efforts in contributing to National and Global HIV and AIDS targets.

The World AIDS theme for this year: “Communities make the difference”, shows that everyone has a role to play in addressing HIV & AIDS. As the Anglican Church Community we have played a significant role in the response to HIV related stigma faced by PLHIV in Zimbabwe. Through the programme efforts PLHIV are now more open to disclose their status in public as a way of encouraging others who may be still in denial. This is a great achievement made as the Stigma Index Study in 2014 highlighted that only 31% of the respondents told their leaders of their status with more respondents 33% confirming that their religious leaders did not know of their status. In the end of term evaluation there was a notable increase in number of PLHIV church members coming out openly to disclose HIV status in church or to church leaders (Matabeland  61%, Central 47%, Harare 86% and Masvingo 76 .7 %).

Another great achievement realised by the Anglican Church is the empowerment of PLHIV through nutrition gardens and Income Generating Activities. The Zimbabwean nutrition and HIV profiling study (MoHCC; 2015) indicated that the nutrition care and support component of the HIV and AIDS programme was weak and yet preventing malnutrition is a key objective in HIV and AIDS management. Compliance and adherence to antiretroviral therapy (ART) is dependent upon the availability of household food. Clients are more likely to take and tolerate ARV oral drugs if they are food secure. The Church has managed to empower PLHIV to be food secure through supporting Income Generating Activities by Wellness groups, this has even led to individuals establishing their own household income generating activities:

Because of support we give each other at the wellness group I managed to continue growing my vendoring business. Other support group members buy from me and the Church continue to encourage us. At the moment I am renting space in one of the shops at Ascot shopping centre. I wish to continue growing this business of Kitchenware. When people visit my shop I want them to see a successful business person and not a person living with the virus. I told our focal person that I am one of the role models ready to testify that you can live so many years with virus.” Sylvia Zhungu (Diocese of Central Zimbabwe)

Support received from the Bishops and clergy has been critical in realising our goal of reducing HIV related stigma in the operational areas of the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe, we look forward as a Church to continue ministering to PLHIV and expand to other areas in Zimbabwe which have not been reached.

For more information:

Rev Duncan Dormor is the General Secretary of USPG

Artwell Sipinyu is the National Coordinator for Anglican Relief and Development in Zimbabwe ARDeZ

https://www.uspg.org.uk/worldwide/zimbabwe/

Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of Us.
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