By: Nicholas Jaech

“Faith-based organizations are essential partners, particularly in the areas of health service delivery and addressing stigma and discrimination. The partnership with faith-based organizations is critical to ending the AIDS epidemic and making sure that no one is left behind.” – Luiz Loures, UNAIDS Deputy Executive Director

On September 27, a small group of representatives from civil society gathered to have an intimate and honest discussion with UNAIDS regarding the next 15 years of combating the AIDS epidemic. I attended this discussion on behalf of the Lutheran Office for World Community. In 2014, UNAIDS drafted and published the Fast-Track strategy, which details the pathway to ending AIDS by 2030. This strategy utilizes the 90-90-90 model, aiming for 90% of all people living with HIV knowing their HIV status, 90% of people who know their status having access to treatment and 90% of people on treatment having suppressed viral loads by 2020. Should this be successful, the strategy then calls for a 95-95-95 model by 2025. In 2030, HIV/AIDS will be so contained that it no longer can or will be considered an “epidemic.”

However, during this meeting, UNAIDS admitted to a funding gap – a $10-15 billion shortfall in the implementation of this “Fast-Track” approach. The under-prioritization of HIV/AIDS often leads governments to be unwilling to legitimately undertake measures to create new revenue specifically for AIDS.

This isn’t to say that national governments are completely shying away from funding the response to the current AIDS epidemic. At a high-level event at the UN held later that day, the United States of America pledged to fund the life-saving treatment for 12.9 million people living with HIV in 2016-17, as well as funding efforts to reduce HIV among girls in 10 sub-Saharan countries by 40%. Additionally, Malawi has pledged 14% of its GDP to HIV prevention, factoring out to $148 per HIV positive person per year. This funding comes in the form of the distribution of necessary anti-retroviral drugs.

But despite this investment, the $10-15 billion shortfall remains.

However, this budget shortfall was not the most concerning reality I heard during this meeting. I was shocked to discover the disproportionate extent to which the AIDS epidemic affects women and girls around the world.

As a young person who has grown up in the United States, the face of HIV and AIDS for me has always been gay men and men who have sex with men (MSM). This is due to both the disproportionate transmission of HIV and AIDS among gay men and MSM (19 times more likely to be living with HIV than the general population), but also the stigma and violent stereotypes placed upon gay men and MSM living with HIV/AIDS. Yet, when examining the new reality of the AIDS epidemic, we have to broaden our understanding of who is affected by this epidemic.

In 2013, statistics show that almost 60% of all new HIV infections among young people aged 15-24 occurred among adolescent girls and young women. Globally, 15% of women living with HIV are aged 15-24, of whom 80% live in sub-Saharan Africa and adolescent girls are eight times more likely to be living with HIV than their male counterparts. Furthermore, transgender women are 49 times more likely to acquire HIV than all adults of reproductive age.

In conjunction with all of this, women and girls experience serious violations of human rights. According to UNAIDS, in sub-Saharan Africa, approximately 80% of women have not completed their secondary education, and one in three women cannot read. In South Africa, a study found that 30% of young female rape survivors were assaulted in or around their school. And in some settings around the world, up to 45% of adolescent girls and young women report that their first sexual experience was forced.

When we continue our own discussions on the advancement of women and girls around the world, the AIDS epidemic must be a central part of the conversation. IMG_0923The global face of AIDS is the woman: the black woman in the United States, the transgender woman in the Caribbean, the girl-child in sub-Saharan Africa and the sex worker in Southeast Asia. These populations are severely affected by the AIDS epidemic and are further marginalized in society when seeking treatment for the virus.

Our advocacy must reflect this global face of the epidemic. We as people of faith, when advocating for women and girls, have a moral obligation to insert the discussion of the AIDS epidemic onto the table. We have a moral obligation to lobby governments and the private sector to invest in ending the AIDS epidemic by 2030, because failure to do so will only perpetuate the marginalization of women and girls in our world. Let us do this through partnership, communion, solidarity, and most importantly, love. Work led by love is the work of God.

So what can we do, as followers of a loving and compassionate God, to bolster the efforts of UNAIDS to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030? We must begin by urging governments to adequately fund the Global Fund. We can also make donations to local HIV/AIDS organizations, for example, the ELCA HIV and AIDS Ministry, which has established a commitment to support the efforts of ending the AIDS epidemic. This support manifests in the training of pastors for HIV/AIDS counseling, providing necessary anti-retroviral medication to rural communities, and free offerings of HIV testing. We can also support our family, friends, and neighbors living with HIV by providing food, clothes, toiletries, and other specified items to local HIV/AIDS clinics, shelters, and organizations. This can also include volunteering one’s time and energy as well. These two simple yet significant actions not only contribute to efforts to end the epidemic, but also illustrate our ability to manifest God’s love in our daily lives. As written in 1 John 3:17-18 – “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? …let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” – we are called to love and support those around us. This has to include those living with HIV and AIDS.

For further reading on combating stigma against key populations, see UNAIDS publications here.