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MOZAMBIQUE: Religious leaders tackle AIDS

In an unprecedented show of solidarity, 16 faith-based organisations in Mozambique have united to tackle the HIV/AIDS epidemic, coming up with a national action plan.

"Faith-based Organisations (FBOs) can make a big difference if they are involved and given the tools," said Mohamad Yassine, coordinator of the World Conference of Religion for Peace (WCRP) in Mozambique.

He told PlusNews that religious leaders could play a major role in tackling HIV/AIDS, as about 10 million of the country's 18 million people were members of an organised religion - from Christians and Muslims to those of the Bahai faith.

To date the epidemic has shown no indication of abating. Mozambique recently announced an upsurge in HIV/AIDS prevalence rates from 13.6 percent last year to 14.9 percent this year. An estimated 500 people are infected with the virus each day.

The FBO action plan, agreed last week and supported by the various ministries and a range of donors, includes initiatives to care for orphans and other children affected by the epidemic, as well as supporting adults living with AIDS-related illnesses.

With the assistance of WCRP, UNAIDS and the UN Children's Fund, the action plan will kick off in mid-November with a training of trainers programme on HIV/AIDS.

Yassine said the training was essential. Although most religious leaders now know about HIV/AIDS, "They haven't all been open about it - all religions need to speak about it in their services, in their communities and in schools. They should also make sure there is no stigmatisation of those living with HIV; they should always welcome those living with HIV."

The training of trainers programme will start with 60 leaders in southern Mozambique, as part of an ongoing process that will be expanded to include the central region in February, and the north of the country in April.

Yassine said it had not been easy to find consensus among the religious groups over safer sex methods. The issue of condom use had been problematic, he conceded, but all agreed that "the problem is not the condom itself - the problem is how, when and why to use it".

There was agreement among all FBOs that condoms should be used in the case of a couple wanting to stay together, where one was HIV positive and the other negative. They were also united about discouraging the youth to have pre-marital sex.

He acknowledged the reality that young people were having sex before they married. "We should not use the condom as a propaganda item; we should not liberalise condoms; we should not distribute them among young people and say use them and you are safe. We rather want behaviour change," said Yassine.

Another major activity of the religious leaders will be caring for children who have been affected by the epidemic, including orphans and children living with HIV. In Mozambique over 270,000 children have either lost one parent or both to HIV/AIDS, and over 80,000 children are living with the virus.

Yassine said religious leaders needed resources to make sure affected children were well cared for by alternative families in their communities. Because most families are poor, such children will need support, especially food and education.

"Religious leaders should be responsible for these children - we need to protect them from abuse and discrimination and bring back the African tradition that the child belongs to the community," Yassine said.

Religious leaders have already been caring for those living with AIDS-related illnesses. "At the moment they are doing it from their heart," he said. "We need to train them so they themselves do not get infected."

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