25 March 2013 – If we are to succeed in helping people infected and affected by HIV/AIDS to have “life to the full”, then defending their rights must be an integral part of our ministry.
This is why the efforts of local AIDS programmes need to be accompanied by coordinated advocacy initiatives at national and regional levels – a conviction that was reinforced during a recent meeting organised by the African Jesuit AIDS Network (AJAN).
Seventeen Jesuits and colleagues involved in AIDS ministry came together from 10 sub-Saharan African countries for the AJAN advocacy meeting that was held from 2 to 5 March at the Emmaus Spiritual Centre in Bujumbura, Burundi.
Although individual Jesuits and projects are already advocating at local and national level, AJAN now wants to implement regionally coordinated campaigns. “Through its different projects, AJAN is better placed to be in it for the long haul, to do this work that calls for courage and competence,” said one participant, Fr Jean-Simon Ratsimbazafy SJ, who runs an AIDS project in an isolated rural district of Madagascar.
The meeting aimed and managed to develop shared advocacy plans for three focus areas: access to treatment, orphans and vulnerable children and sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV).
“We all know by experience, after 30 years, that HIV/AIDS has made a preferential option for the poor,” said Fr Paterne Mombé SJ, AJAN director, as he opened the meeting.
“It is our duty, as servants of Christ’s mission, to commit ourselves for the sake of the poor in the context of the pandemic, who are mostly women, orphans and vulnerable children, and the many people on the continent who are still in need of more effective and quality treatment.”
Fr Kelly Michelo SJ, who runs the home-based care (HBC) programme of Chikuni Parish in rural Zambia, said: “The three themes discussed are crucial to our AIDS apostolate. If we are to promote fullness of life, then advocating on these issues is no doubt crucial.
“It became clear to me that the plight of orphans due to AIDS is a big reality we see every day, so much so, we are tempted to overlook it. The issue of gender-based violence is a daily occurrence among our people with HIV and causes reinfection. And the theme of universal access reminded me of the struggle our people face to access antiretroviral therapy (ART).”
The undeniably strong link between AIDS, injustices and inequalities make advocacy an imperative. “Where justice is absent, HIV/AIDS shows up all the more,” said Fr Désiré Yamuremye SJ, director of Service Yezu Mwiza (SYM), a comprehensive AIDS project in Burundi, and host of the meeting. “We have to advocate because some people’s rights, usually the most vulnerable, are not respected.”
Working to ensure better access to treatment for HIV and to address the wider problem of inadequate primary healthcare facilities is definitely a priority. “As AJAN, we have to advocate because some of our people don’t have access to comprehensive care,” continued Fr Désiré.
The group drafting the access to treatment plan decided to focus on urging African governments to fulfil their commitment in the Abuja Declaration (2001) to allocate at least 15% of their annual budget to health.
There will be an emphasis on two vulnerable groups. Jeanine Kukasheta, who works with the home-based care programme of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in South Africa, presented a vivid picture of the needs of refugees struggling to access treatment.
Also vulnerable are children with HIV as access to paediatric ARVs remains problematic in many countries. The group focusing on advocacy for orphans and vulnerable children also identified SSDDIM – shame, stigma, discrimination, denial, inaction and misaction – as an outstanding challenge.
On the topic of SGBV, as the focus group sought to narrow down the advocacy objectives, it felt the need to promote healthy relationships of equality between men and women and to tackle harmful cultural practices. The vehicle identified through which to advocate: the different levels of the Church network in Africa, starting with the Jesuits themselves.
“The planning of advocacy activities to be implemented by 2015 is a strong and compelling reason to work together,” said Fr Martin Bahati SJ, parish priest at St Pierre Claver in Bukavu, eastern Congo.
“This planning will help each and every one, in the realities of our different contexts, to organise advocacy activities and to evaluate them properly, taking into account what other members of AJAN are doing.”
But clearly AJAN cannot work alone. “We need a strong network inside and outside the Society of Jesus,” said Fr Désiré. “We need to work with networks of people living with HIV at national and international level. We need the Church in a special way, we need our centres of social analysis, and much more.”
AJAN hopes to implement its advocacy plans in close collaboration with Jesuit social centres in Africa and Madagascar and with others, including JRS, which was well represented at the meeting. Katrine Camilleri, director of JRS Malta, was facilitator while advocacy and communications staff from JRS Eastern Africa and Grands Lacs attended as resource persons. Also sharing his considerable academic knowledge about human rights was Fr Isidore Bonabom SJ from Ghana.
The opportunity to learn from the experience and expertise of others was welcomed by participants. “The workshop helped me a lot to understand advocacy techniques,” said Fr Jean-Simon. “For me, this was capacity building because our activities in Madagascar focus on advocating for prevention and the proper care of people with HIV.”
Next issue, AJANews will run a feature on Service Yezu Mwiza, the comprehensive AIDS programme of the Jesuit Region of Rwanda-Burundi that hosted the meeting and that the participants visited on the last day of the workshop.