In Africa, stigma among members of the public remains a key barrier to seeking HIV testing and treatment services within communities they live in. However, the case is different in Malawi as churches have chosen to counter the situation by taking the services to congregants.
According to 2018 UNAIDS data, Malawi has one of the highest HIV prevalence in the world, with 9.6% of the teenage population aged 15-19 years old living with HIV. UNAIDS further estimated that one million Malawians were living with HIV in 2016 and 25,000 Malawians died from AIDs-related illness in the same year.
“Our people are dying due to lack of knowledge” Said Pastor Howard Kasiya, the National Coordinator of the Health Commission of the Evangelical Association of Malawi (EAM). Pastor Kasiya was speaking during an interview conducted on the sidelines of a recent inter-faith leaders’ training conducted by Faith to Action Network, in Nairobi, to build their capacity to influence changes in policy and social norms in the State of African Women Campaign.
EAM, a faith-based organization understands that health is a universal need. At the heart of evangelism, they run programs which mainstream interventions for the HIV scourge.
Roughly a third of all new HIV infections (12,500 out of 36,000) in Malawi in 2016 occurred among young people aged 15-14. Early sexual activity in Malawi is high with around 15% of young women and 18% of young men aged 15-14 reporting having sex before the age of 15 , (UNAIDS 2018).
Among their programs, EAM churches have teen clubs for young people and youth living with HIV. They meet twice weekly with support from a trained pastor. Teen clubs help answer various questions that young people have concerning issues of HIV infection and treatment.
Similarly, the adults within the churches and communities have HIV support groups for people living with HIV. These groups are also supported by a church leader.
For effectiveness, EAM has trained several religious leaders, of different ages, to become peer educators and counselors on issues of HIV AIDs and offer psychosocial support. The trained persons facilitate discussions within the groups.
In addition, the churches also offer nutrition services to the affected population.
“There has been an attitude change among boys and men who are often rigid at seeking HIV testing services. Many are now requesting for the services” Said Pastor Kasiya.
On days set aside for testing and counselling services, congregants turn out in good numbers. Pastors, deacons and church leaders often lead the congregants in taking up the services. Counselling and testing for HIV is offered by qualified service providers together with trained youth leaders and church leaders.
“To deal with stigma associated with people going to public testing services, we decided to bring the services closer to them. Service providers come to our churches to conduct testing services. We make the exercise as comfortable as possible for all,” emphasized Pastor Kasiya.
Pastor Kasiya further noted that HIV prevalence has dropped in Malawi over the past few years, but they as a church cannot ignore the rising number of new infections among young people.
Besides HIV and AIDs, EAM also runs programs around Sexual and Reproductive Health, Family Planning, Maternal and child health, Sanitation and hygiene and nutrition.
“What is very important is that we present all these from a biblical perspective, with supportive scriptures from the bible, as an obligation to God” Concluded Pastor Kasiya.
Achieving this kind of commitment from faith leaders has not been easy. There has been constant training and capacity building of religious leaders, such as the one provided by Faith to Action Network with financial support from the European Union, to make faith actors effective amplifiers of the message that optimum health and wellness are a key part of God’s plan for humankind.