By: Nicholas Jaech, Lutheran Office for World Community

“Faith-based organizations are essential partners, particularly in the areas of health service delivery and addressing stigma and discrimination. The partnership with faith-based organizations is critical to ending the AIDS epidemic and making sure that no one is left behind.” – Luiz Loures, UNAIDS Deputy Executive Director, September 27, 2015.

Today we commemorate World AIDS Day – a day to unite in the fight against HIV, show solidarity with people living with HIV and remember those who have died.

During the General Assembly of the United Nations, the Lutheran Office for World Community (LOWC) staff joined a small group of representatives from civil society, who gathered to have an assessment and planning discussion with UNAIDS regarding the next 15 years of combating the AIDS epidemic. In 2014, UNAIDS drafted and published its Fast-Track strategy, which details the pathway to ending AIDS by 2030. This strategy utilizes the 90-90-90 model, aiming for 90% of all people living with HIV knowing their HIV status, 90% of people who know their status having access to treatment and 90% of people on treatment having suppressed viral loads by 2020. Should this be successful, the strategy then calls for a 95-95-95 model by 2025. If successful by 2030, HIV/AIDS will be so contained that it no longer will be considered an “epidemic.”

However, during this meeting, UNAIDS admitted to a significant funding gap – a $10-15 billion shortfall in the implementation of this “Fast-Track” approach. This gap is largely due to the misconception that the AIDS epidemic is no longer as pressing or dangerous as it once was. This misconception then leads to the under-prioritization of HIV/AIDS, which often results in the unwillingness of governments to legitimately undertake measures to create new revenue specifically for combating the epidemic.

This isn’t to say that national governments are completely shying away from funding the response to the current AIDS epidemic. At a high-level event at the UN held later that day, the United States pledged to fund the life-saving treatment for 12.9 million people living with HIV in 2016-17, as well as funding efforts to reduce HIV among girls in 10 sub-Saharan countries by 40%.1 Additionally, Malawi pledged 14% of its GDP to HIV prevention, factoring out to $148 per HIV positive person per year. This funding comes in the form of the distribution of necessary anti-retroviral drugs .2

But despite these announcements, the $10-15 billion shortfall remains.

So what can we do, as followers of a loving and compassionate God, to bolster the efforts of UNAIDS to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030? First, we can make financial donations to the ELCA HIV and AIDS Ministry, which has established a commitment to support the efforts of ending the AIDS epidemic. This support manifests in the training of pastors for HIV/AIDS counseling, providing necessary anti-retroviral medication to rural communities, and free offerings of HIV testing. We can also support our family, friends, and neighbors living with HIV by providing food, clothes, toiletries, and other specified items to local HIV/AIDS clinics, shelters, and organizations. This can also include volunteering one’s time and energy as well. These two simple yet significant actions not only contribute to efforts to end the epidemic, but also illustrate our ability to manifest God’s love in our daily lives. As written in 1 John 3:17-18 – “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” – we are called to love and support those around us. This has to include those living with HIV and AIDS.

Yet, we are called not only to provide financial support or direct donations for local and international efforts to combat this epidemic, but also to combat the stigma that perpetuates and strengthens this epidemic every day. In fact, we cannot even begin to address the issue of HIV/AIDS without addressing the stigma and marginalization of those who are living with it.

Stigma and discrimination in education, health clinics, and general society against people living with HIV/AIDS, and especially against key populations with HIV/AIDS, continues to exacerbate the epidemic. For example, transgender women are 49 times more likely to acquire HIV than all adults of reproductive age.3 However, only 39% of countries have national AIDS strategies that specifically address transgender people (ibid). Additionally, gay men and other men who have sex with men worldwide are 19 times more likely to be living with HIV.4 Furthermore, adolescent girls are eight times more likely to be living with HIV than their male counterparts.5

Stigma and discrimination in societies around the world against these key populations above, as well against many others, are the largest contributors to the AIDS epidemic. It is then our responsibility as people of faith to work to systematically dismantle the oppression that continues to make these populations vulnerable. We are called to extend our love and support specifically to these groups of people. We are called not only to support them in their health, but also to support them in their own agency – bringing them into mainstream dialogue and decision-making regarding HIV/AIDS efforts (see also the ECLA Strategy on HIV and AIDS).6 The ELCA and the Episcopal Church reaffirmed their commitment to supporting these key populations in 2014.7 Also, religious leaders from 18 Eastern and Southern African countries with the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, an ecumenical initiative of the World Council of Churches, recently declared that “all human beings are equal before God and should be treated with dignity and respect regardless of age, gender and sexual orientation.”8

We, as church members with global relationships, have the potential to greatly contribute to the fight against the AIDS epidemic. If we are to truly live the message of 1 John 3:17-18, we must support people living with HIV/AIDS by addressing the core issue: stigma and discrimination. This is not simply an act of charity, but a moral calling of our Church by God. World AIDS Day reminds us that we can address this dangerous stigma only by showing unconditional love for all people, for I believe that only unconditional love, unconditional support, and a unified campaign for justice can combat stigma. If we truly want to end HIV/AIDS by 2030, this unconditional love has to continue to be at the forefront of our work, not only as a Church, but in our work as individuals. To echo a central message of the ELCA: “God’s work, our hands.”

For more on the ELCA’s HIV and AIDS Ministry, read here. You can also follow their efforts via Facebook.

For further reading on combating stigma against key populations, see UNAIDS publications here.