02/04/2014 02:06 pm ET Updated Apr 05, 2014

An AIDS-Free Generation Requires Stigma-Free Faith Communities


To achieve an AIDS-Free generation, we will need the active involvement of local faith leaders. We have already made remarkable progress toward an AIDS-Free Generation, largely through advances in science and medicine, and we will need those advances to continue. But we will also need much greater progress in the social dimensions of the epidemic, especially the stigma associated with AIDS and HIV. And that is where we need local faith communities to play a strong role.

Stigma is the societal rejection of people living with HIV, a feeling or attitude that people who have been infected with HIV are somehow bad, different, wrong and, perhaps, to be feared.

The effects of stigma on individuals can be devastating. It can lead to isolation from family and community, to loss of economic livelihood, to diminished self-worth and even to suicide. Fear of being stigmatized causes people living with HIV to delay getting tested, and to delay getting treated, which in turn leads to more physical suffering or even full-blown AIDS and death.

The effects of stigma are so strong and so widespread that they significantly affect the global epidemic. Because of stigma, rates of new HIV infections and rates of AIDS-related deaths are higher. We know, scientifically, that timely testing and treatment reduce further transmission, but when stigma prevents people from getting tested and treated, we can't take advantage of the scientific advances.

The importance of stigma is reflected in the United States National HIV/AIDS Strategy in its vision of an AIDS-Free Generation:

The United States will become a place where new HIV infections are rare and when they do occur, every person regardless of age, gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or socio-economic circumstance, will have unfettered access to high quality, life-extending care, free from stigma and discrimination.

The importance of stigma is also reflected in comments I hear from HIV-positive church members I have met in Africa:

We're not dying from the disease. We're dying from stigma.

So our first conclusion is:

Achieving an AIDS-Free Generation requires significantly reducing the stigma associated with HIV.

How do we reduce stigma? That's where local faith communities come in. In a previous blog, "Local Faith Leaders Can End the AIDS Crisis," I described what local faith leaders could do to end stigma. Here, I'd like to describe why we need them to do it. It comes down to two reasons.

The first reason involves education. Fear is one of the drivers of stigma, and education is one of the best ways to reduce fear. Local faith communities are exceptionally well placed to provide that education. They exist in most human communities, and they have frequent and consistent interaction with their members. That interaction is a platform that can be used to teach about AIDS, HIV, modes of transmission, treatment protocols and methods of prevention. At the same time, dangerous myths and misunderstandings can be addressed and eliminated. Simply providing such education would be a major step forward in reducing stigma.

The second reason that we need local faith communities is that local faith leaders have a very strong influence on personal attitudes, not only the attitudes of faith community members, but also the attitudes of the wider community of which they are a part. If local faith leaders are silent, stigma will be reinforced. If they spread messages of judgment and rejection, stigma will strengthen and grow. But if local faith leaders take positive action and spread messages of compassion and acceptance, then stigma will disappear. Local faith communities will become places of hope for people living with HIV.

Local faith leaders are integral to both reasons -- they are the ones with direct contact with the membership. Global and national faith leaders can be very influential and can provide strong moral leadership, but ultimately it comes down to the words and actions of the local faith leaders. They are the ones who can, and must, eliminate stigma in their faith communities.

So our second conclusion is:

Significantly reducing the stigma associated with HIV requires stigma-free faith communities.

Putting the two conclusions together:

An AIDS-free generation requires stigma-free faith communities.

As we collectively strive to achieve an AIDS-Free Generation, we must strengthen the partnerships between secular and faith-based groups, with the goal of mobilizing local faith leaders of every faith and in every community to eliminate the stigma of HIV and AIDS.

In my next blog, I'll describe some of the characteristics of a stigma-free faith community.

Note: The phrase "AIDS-Free Generation" was first used in a UNICEF initiative in 2005. The phrase became the hallmark of U.S. policy and initiatives when used by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in November 2011 (Hillary Clinton Calls for "AIDS-Free Generation").