CHURCHES and religious institutions play a pivotal role in reducing the number of new HIV infections in men as well as promoting better health seeking behavior amongst in men, top HIV/AIDS experts have said.
By Michael Gwarisa
According to the 2020 Zimbabwe Population-based HIV Impact Assessment (ZIMPHIA) Key findings, HIV prevalence was 15.3% among women and 10.2% among men (ZimPHIA 2020), however more men were still not aware of their HIV status and they were lagging behind in terms of viral load suppression.
Speaking during a Virtual workshop for ZCC Supervisory Council for accelerating male engagement on HIV, SRHR and GBV within the Church and the community, National AIDS Council (NAC) Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Dr Benard Madzima said the HIV national response cannot afford to ignore pastors and church leaders owing to their ability to woe large crowds.
Reports from the response indicate that men will be largely visible when it comes to activities where they stand to gain material; benefits such as bicycles and food. This is despite the fact that men are central both in exacerbating and addressing Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) as part of our culture which has been ably demonstrated as key drivers of HIV infections. In recognition of the role in the importance of the role in the faith-based sector, as a national platform through which we can reach a wider mass of men for HIV awareness, NAC and partners developed an HIV faith-based organization strategy.
“We are very glad to be working with the Zimbabwe Council of Churches (ZCC) in this and hope that the training will be catalytic in motivating a wider mass of men to actively participate in and access HIV services. Pastors and church leaders wield so much influence in people including men and using their magnetic attraction, they can infuse HIV messages and motivate men to take their health seriously. This will spare us to achieve the 95-95-95 targets and eventually ending of AIDS by 2030,” said Dr Madzima.
He added that access to HIV prevention and treatment services had expanded over the past decades and Zimbabwe was moving closer to epidemic control and managing the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
“Despite this commendable progress, we are worried about the general low uptake of health services by men largely on account of a low health seeking behavior which may eventually reverse the positive gains we have recorded so far. Data from several health indicators including HIV testing, Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI) treatment, Antiretroviral Therapy (ART) and participation in HIV awareness programs among others shows that less men compared to women are forthcoming about their own health and that of their families.”
Speaking during the same virtual event, UNAIDS Country Director, Sophia Mukasa Monico said Ending AIDS as a public health threat by 2030 is possible but there is need for increased participation of men and boys to ensure the progress is not slowed down.
“By 2019, more than 40 countries had crossed or were within reach of a key epidemiological milestone towards ending AIDS. Millions of people living with HIV enjoy long and healthy lives and there is continued reduction in new HIV infections. As we all might know, throughout most of our region, women and girls are the most affected, however, the response for men and boys is lagging behind. Proportionately fewer men and boys benefit from HIV and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) programming than do women and girls, and the health outcomes for males with HIV are worse than for females.
[pullquote]“While AIDS-related deaths are declining in females of all ages, deaths in adult males are declining at a slower rate, and deaths in young men (15-24) are actually rising. The complex reasons for this widening gap are increasingly understood and require intensified efforts to address unequal gender norms, male engagement in HIV and SRHR programming and gender transformation. Effective male engagement will reap benefits not just for men and boys but, critically, for women and girls too,” said Dr Monico.[/pullquote]
The UNAIDS Fast-Track Targets for 2030 are 95% of people with HIV know their status, 95% of people who know they have HIV have initiated antiretroviral treatment (ART), and 95% of people on treatment have suppressed viral loads.
UN Women Country Director, Pamela Mhlanga said increased cases of Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) towards women had increased the rates of new HIV infections in women hence the need to rope in men and boys in the national HIV response.
“Extensive research has shown that violence against women (VAW) is rooted in gender inequities and exacerbates HIV/AIDS risk for women and girls. In some settings, up to 45 per cent of adolescent girls report that their first sexual experience was forced. Worldwide more than 700 million women alive today were married before their eighteenth birthday.
“They often have limited access to prevention information and limited power to protect themselves from HIV infection. The lack of information on HIV prevention and the power to use this information in sexual relationships, including in the context of marriage, undermines women’s ability to negotiate condom use and engage in safer sex practices. Women living with HIV are more likely to experience violence, including violations of their sexual and reproductive rights,” said Mhlanga.
Meanwhile, the objective of the virtual training for churches to participate in the HIV response was mainly to develop and enhance understating of the theological underpinnings of the church’s role in SRHR/HIV, as well as equip ZCC leadership with knowledge and skills in the HIV epidemic and response areas (prevention, treatment, care, support, and mitigation among a host of others.
Zimbabwe Council of Churches General Secretary Reverend Kenneth Mtata said cultural expectations have been forcing men to shy away from showing their emotions or sickness in the process creating poor health seeking outcomes in men.
“The situation of all human beings is their reality that at some point they are feeling very strong in their bodies, they are cheerful in spirit and they have an experience of peace of mind. This is a reality for all human beings but other times, human beings are physically unwell, they sometimes fee very low in spirit. These situations affect men and women differently. From our culture, men feel so much under pressure when they are unwell, when they feel helpless.
“Actually, there is a saying in many of our vernacular languages that you need to act like a men even when you are not well, you need to try to be strong or to appear strong. This situation gets worse when men are struggling from illness that are sexual reproductive in nature. When they get diseases that are related to their reproductive health, it becomes a problem. This is not made any better when people process their reality from the lands of their faith or form their religious orientation which is a reality for many people. Faith Shapes the world,” said Rev Mtata.