We can go far with others in fight against HIV and stigma

Tanzanian Lutheran pastor Rev. Amin Sandewa is a founding member of the interfaith network of religious leaders living with, or personally affected by HIV. Photo: Private
Tanzanian Lutheran pastor Rev. Amin Sandewa is a founding member of the interfaith network of religious leaders living with, or personally affected by HIV. Photo: Private

Tanzanian Lutheran pastor Sandewa shares his personal experience

(LWI) – While the number of people affected by HIV and AIDS in Tanzania has increased since the first three cases reported in 1983, remarkable progress in prevention and treatment has also taken place. However, addressing stigma and discrimination remains an urgent priority, says Lutheran pastor Rev. Amin Sandewa.  

“We need to accelerate joint efforts. I have learned that if you want to go fast, you go alone. But if you want to go far, you go with others,” says Sandewa, who has been actively engaged in the rights of people living with HIV over two decades.

An estimated 1.4 million people in Tanzania were living with HIV in 2015, according to the United Nations AIDS body, UNAIDS. The country’s Ministry of Health says 150,000 people die each year from illnesses associated with AIDS.

The call for greater collaboration is the message Sandewa has taken to Durban, South Africa, where he has joined other faith actors at the 21st International AIDS Conference this week. “Access equity rights now” is the theme of the gathering, which ends today, and interfaith pre-conference. Representatives of civil society, including churches, will urge governments and other stakeholders to speed up efforts to ensure equal rights especially for people living with HIV so they can participate in the world as equals.

Without a cure in sight, we must unite all efforts, as the battle will take a very long time, says the ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania (ELCT). The church launched its first AIDS control program in 1987.

Networking and vast experience

Networking has proved to be an effective approach to AIDS work, says Sandewa. He is a founding member of Tanzania’s interfaith network of religious leaders living with, or personally affected by HIV (TANERELA), the local chapter of the international body, INERELA.

It is important for people to have the correct attitude and enough information about the disease. They need to hear the message of hope that HIV and AIDS are conditions that can be managed.
Rev. Amin Sandewa, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania

He says the decision to start the national network of people living with HIV in 2005 “was the right choice for me. I realized I could use my personal and vast experience as an individual clergy living with the disease to talk about the reality on the ground among religious leaders and other members of society.”

Sandewa talks about his strong engagement with religious leaders of all faiths and doctrines and the community at large. “I work at community level, where I provide counseling especially on the importance of disclosure about HIV status. I encourage those affected to develop a positive outlook to life, and teach them skills to help them overcome stigma and deal with discrimination. I encourage and sensitize religious leaders to test for HIV so as to walk the talk in addressing AIDS issues. It is important for people to have the correct attitude and enough information about the disease. They need to hear the message of hope that HIV and AIDS are conditions that can be managed.”

Health and education facilities

The Lutheran World Federation supports the church's AIDS work, which is organized around the church’s pastoral and diaconal facilities, in order to promote prevention, treatment and care. The Tanzanian Lutheran church runs 24 hospitals and nearly 150 health centers and dispensaries, which cater to more than 15 percent of the country’s population. It owns 120 educational institutions, which include two universities and several colleges, primary, secondary and special needs’ schools, seminaries and Bible schools, and vocational and medical training centers.

In Tanzania more than 690,000 women aged 15 and above live with HIV. The Lutheran church women’s work promotes economic empowerment projects for women, and tackles issues such as violence against women as some of the factors that place this group at a higher risk of HIV infection. Poverty usually forces women to practice unsafe sex, and young girls mainly from economically disadvantaged backgrounds often accept financial gifts in exchange for sexual favors.

Holistic approach

The broad objective of the ELCT AIDS program is to combine clinical and non-clinical initiatives to address the pandemic. Church leaders, parish workers, women leaders, youth and Sunday school teachers are among the groups being trained for this specific ministry.

In 2015, Sandewa promoted HIV testing to 300 religious leaders and 1,300 congregation members. He also trained 15 religious leaders on how to prevent and respond to gender-based violence, and ensured training for 60 female sex workers on their rights to health services.

“As a church, it is important to change the perception about HIV and AIDS. The disease is a health issue that requires more than a clinical approach. That is why we have adopted this holistic approach,” he adds.

The ELCT has more than 6.5 million members. Its AIDS work is carried out in all its 24 dioceses and numerous congregations.

Faith on the fast track