Churches called to embrace Pacific’s HIV/AIDS crisis

By Joanna Davis

The spectre of HIV/AIDS is looming large in the Pacific and the Church is being called upon to help.

There are 9000 reported cases of HIV infection in Pacific countries such as Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga, Niue and the Solomons. Because testing is not well established, some estimates put the true figure at over 25,000 – in an area with a combined population of only 6.6 million.

Papua New Guinea is the worst affected with around 130 cases per 100,000 people. By comparison, New Zealand's rate is 23 per 100,000.

Prime Minister Helen Clark is among those calling for the churches to act. In August she spoke at the Pacific Islands forum in Apia and said we are up against deep and sensitive cultural taboos. Churches in highly religious countries need to respond, and the emphasis should be on sex education and condom use.

Laisiasa Wainikesa agrees. The former Methodist minister is a counsellor at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji. Laisiasa says there's a need to talk about sex and condom use and this does not promote promiscuity.

"The fact is whether we talk about sex or not, young people in the region from the age of 14 are sexually active and face the problems of early pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases."

In the 1990s Laisiasa worked for the World Health Organisation as a consultant on HIV/AIDS. He ran education programmes in schools and worked with Pacific governments.

Laisiasa says churches have begun to take action. Through the Association of Theological Schools in the Pacific, he is involved in a working group introducing sexuality training and HIV awareness to the curriculum.

"It's better now but the church response has got to be very bold and vigorous because the spread of HIV is going faster than what we are doing. It has to begin with church leaders."

In April the World Council of Churches’ (WCC) Pacific members released the Nadi Declaration on HIV/AIDS. The declaration calls for working groups, education, counselling and using church funds for HIV/AIDS work. It recognises the need to overcome ignorance, silence and fear.

Laisiasa says the church needs to talk about sex. "The church has been afraid to talk about it openly. Sexuality is God's gift but humanity has taken it for granted. We used it for our own enjoyment without looking at it as such."

Tahitian-born Maire Bopp Dupont is the public face of the pandemic in the Pacific. From Rarotonga she heads the Pacific Islands AIDS Foundation (PIAF), which works to prevent further spread of the disease and improve the quality of life of people living with HIV/AIDS. New Zealand's aid and development agency NZAID will provide PIAF $730,000 over the next three years as part of its annual Pacific aid package of $122 million.

Maire was a 23-year-old journalism graduate when she was diagnosed with HIV in 1998. Like 80 percent of infected Pacific women, she contracted the virus through heterosexual transmission – from her partner of three years.

Maire has faced discrimination and ignorance over the last six years, particularly in the early days. "People would point the finger at those living with the virus as if we were criminals but most people who are HIV positive want to protect others from getting the virus."

She has seen attitudes shift slowly. "Positive people are becoming more vocal and raising awareness. More people are comfortable to talk about it."

The challenge is to implement public health measures such as access to condoms. "In practice there's still difficulty in implementing these things. The Pacific is a traditional place, a conservative place where churches dominate social and cultural life. Church leaders have a responsibility to save the lives of their own people."

Maire welcomes the WCC Nadi Declaration. "It was like a mother giving birth – quite painful but the baby was beautiful. It's a commitment stating that the churches should emphasise a caring role and participate in the fight against HIV."

Edward Cowley (pictured right) is the Auckland-based Pacific Peoples Project educator for the New Zealand AIDS Foundation (NZAF). A Samoan man, he has close family links with churches. "About 95 percent of Pacific people in New Zealand go to church, and whatever they say goes. Pacific people don't question what the church says so church leaders are in a good position to release information that could really help people.

"We need to let it become more of a health issue than a moral issue. It's not a one-sided thing about sin, morality and HIV."

NZAF communication co-ordinator Steve Attwood says the reluctance of Pacific Island communities in New Zealand to talk about sex, and especially homosexuality, means the foundation needs to vary its usual approach.

"Often what's required is education of the whole community because it's not safe to try to draw the gay men out and identify them. With white male groups, you can be explicit and hard-hitting with safe sex messages but we can't do that. We have to work very carefully," he says.

Steve is loath to call the anti-gay feeling among Pacific communities cultural. "It's not cultural, it's a by-product of colonialism. Those cultures had a much more open attitude towards sexuality before colonisation."

Steve refers to the Samoan and wider Pacific tradition of fa'afafine – boys and men who dress as women. Fa'afafine are accepted and even embraced in traditional society.

Fijian Methodist minister Dr Ilaitia Tuwere teaches at St John's Theological College in Auckland. He draws a line between embracing fa'afafine and condoning homosexuality. "Fa'afafine are given space and place in the community but to move from that and express it in sexual terms – it's not on."

Iliatia says Pacific churches frown on the ordination of gays and lesbians and don’t support legislation such as the Civil Union Bill. But he does see a role for the churches in raising awareness of HIV/AIDS.

“It's new to our people. There's an open mind on the part of the church about addressing it, about raising awareness, educating people and helping them understand the extent of the problem." He says the church also has a role in caring for affected people both in New Zealand and in the Pacific.

Pacific issues inevitably wash onto New Zealand shores. NZAF's Steve Attwood says Auckland is the world’s biggest Polynesian city and New Zealanders have many tourism and cultural links with Pacific countries. So the Pacific Islands are a huge community of concern "physically, financially and emotionally".