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Theological Workshop Focusing on HIV- and AIDS-related Stigma (UNAIDS)

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When people fear that they are HIV-positive, but know that they will not be in a position to access treatment, there is little incentive for them to seek help or change behaviour. If they make such a move, they are risking attracting the stigma attached to those who are known to be living with HIV and AIDS, and which spreads out, in waves, to their families, their survivors, and others who are close to them. Treatment may be available to prevent mother-to-child transmission, but pregnant women may not come forward to ask for it. Rather than risk the stigmatization and discrimination that will follow if they are discovered to be living with HIV or AIDS, they may prefer to take the risk of giving birth to an HIV-positive child.

If churches are to engage effectively with local, regional and international responses to  the epidemic, then issues of stigma and discrimination have to be confronted, not just at the level of church organization and practice, but also by Christian theology itself: at the level of what is taught in seminaries, what academic theologians lecture, write and think about, what the faithful believe and do, and what values inform the pastoral formation of clergy and lay people. But this puts great pressure on those who teach in these contexts, who may know little or nothing about HIV and AIDS, and whose own background and training is unlikely to have provided them with the tools for refl ecting theologically upon it.

As part of its strategy for meeting this need, UNAIDS organized an international workshop for academic theologians from different Christian traditions. Held at  Windhoek, Namibia from 8th to 11th December 2003, the workshop had two primary objectives: to sharpen the response to HIV- and AIDS-related stigma among theological educators and church leaders; and to develop a framework that might provide a useful basis for theological refl ection in the contexts of theological education, church councils and synods, and pastoral formation. This document is one result of that process.

The group which produced the present document consisted of leading academic theologians from fi ve continents and many church traditions, people living with HIV or AIDS, and clergy and lay people working at global and community level in the fi eld of HIV and AIDS; a full list is given. The document represents their best efforts to grapple with the serious and complex issues related to stigmatizing and discriminatory  reactions to HIV and AIDS, and to discern the values and beliefs that underlie a justice-based response to such negative phenomena. Participants did not attempt to produce a consensus statement. They were similarly aware that, in some churches, doctrinal formulation rests with the competent authorities within their respective  communions. They sincerely hope, however, that this framework will guide additional research, refl ection and action in relation to the stigma and discrimination that regrettably characterises this stage of the HIV and AIDS pandemic.