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National Conference on "Spiritual Approach to the Challenge of HIV/AIDS"

Sponsored by: Varqa Foundation, UNICEF, & International Baha’i Community

Friday, December 13, 2002

The conference opened with prayers from the Christians, Hindus, Moslems and Bahá’is.

Dr. Brian O’Toole opened the Conference welcoming everyone and expressing the thought that this was an age of hope. He challenged this generation to lay the foundation of a New World Order and to form a new model of development. “The challenges” he said, “can no longer wait. The needs are too urgent. We cannot repeat what we have been doing in the past. The time has come for the creation of a new being. In this conference, we need to articulate our role in this process.”

The first speaker was the First Lady of the Republic, Ms. U. Jagdeo. Deeply involved with the Convention of the Rights of the Child, she mentioned that every child has the right to life. Giving children HIV/AIDS, whether through transmission from their mothers or through sexual abuse, is in a violation of this right. Children who have HIV/AIDS need extra help. Many are abandoned and therefore they become double victims. We need to educate society to be compassionate towards them. HIV/AIDS does not discriminate. It can happen to anyone.

She was followed by Dr. Morris Edwards, the National AIDS Secretary. He began by saying that there was a need for spiritual awareness in the fight against AIDS and that moral values played an important role. He then shared with the audience some of the latest statistics to give an idea of its prevalence in the world, in the Caribbean and in Guyana, as follows:

Globally,

• 40 million people are currently living with HIV/AIDS.

• Of these 37.2 million are adults and 3 million are children.

• In 2001 there were 3 million deaths consisting of 2.4 million adults and 580,000 children.

• Five million people acquired HIV/AIDS last year, including 1.8 million women and 800.000 children.

• There were 14,000 new infections every day in 2001, 95% of them in developing countries.

• 2,000 new infections a day were in children under age 15

• 12,000 new infections a day were in people 15-49 yrs.

o 50% of these were women and

o 50% were in the age group of 15-24 years.

In the Caribbean,

• There are currently 420,000 people infected with HIV/AIDS.

• In 2001 there were 60,000 new infections and 30,000 deaths.

• The Caribbean is the second most infected region with an overall infection rate of 2%.

In Guyana

• Guyana is the second most infected nation in the Caribbean with an estimated rate of 3.5% - 5.5% of the population, possibly higher.

• The infection rates in certain groups of the population are as follows:

• 1% of blood donors (after extensive questioning to avoid people at risk)

• 35% of commercial sex workers

• 23% of people with STIs (Sexually Transmitted Infections)

• 65% of people with genital ulcers.

• There are currently an estimated 15,000-20,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in Guyana.

When these statistics are compared with those in sub-Saharan Africa, which has the highest rates, Guyana is not far behind because Africa has an overall rate of 8.4% and Guyana 5.5%.

Reported cases of HIV/AIDS are increasing dramatically in Guyana and the rate in females is surpassing males. Last year there were many more women between the ages of 15-19 years old becoming infected than males indicating that young girls were engaging in sex with older men.

HIV/AIDS is infecting the most productive segment of the population resulting in a decrease in earning capacity and many social ills, such as drug abuse, violence, crime, etc.

In Guyana AIDS has moved from the 3rd to the 2nd leading cause of death and the life expectancy has dropped by five years. The economic impact has been considerable and AIDS has become a serious burden on Guyana’s economy. It is also “disseminating our youth”, thus causing Guyana to lose it best resource.

Dr. Edwards concluded that the survival of the country was at stake. “If left unchecked,” he said, “There will be no Guyana. We have no choice but to respond.”

The next speaker was the Minister of Health, Dr. Leslie Ramsammy. He also began by saying we need a spiritual approach to the prevention of AIDS. “Guyana has a serious problem,” he said. “History teaches us lessons. We win when we work together. This is not about race, religion, age or class. AIDS recognizes no barriers. People must come together and recognize a common enemy. If we don’t come together, we have no future. Unity must be our response. The community, the churches, the schools must come together. It would be a victory for all of us, not for the Ministry of Health”.

He then said that 65 million people have been infected and that this is the worst pandemic ever. While it was recognized 2 decades ago, we are now seeing the devastation. In Africa he saw villages with only children and grandparents. While the Ministry of Health is the steward of people’s health in Guyana, HIV/AIDS is not just a health issue. It is also a development issue, it confronts our moral strength and countries are beginning to recognize this in their response.

He mentioned that a response requires political commitment. “We failed in this in the beginning”, he said. “Now things are changing. The Guyanese President and cabinet are taking the lead. They recognize that this is a priority issue. We must ensure that we make the response NOW and concentrate on prevention”.

“However”, he went on, “We cannot take a myopic view. There are many innocent victims. Even those who have brought this on themselves are still our brothers and our sisters. We, in Guyana, are religious. We must care for those infected.” He then spoke about the need for strong treatment and care of the infected and how this is linked with prevention. He pleaded for the involvement of everyone and said that the churches, the schools and the health centers must all play an integral part. “We must all work together,” he said. “This is not just for the Ministry of Health or the Government.” He said he was encouraged that people, from all walks of life, were getting involved. “That is why I know we will succeed,” he concluded.

He then outlined the governments response which included holding a series of National Consultations that resulted in laying the infrastructure for response including testing and treatment facilities, establishing a National Secretariat for HIV/AIDS, involving NGOs and coming up with a National Plan. “We take pride that we can build indigenous initiatives”, he said. “HIV/AIDS has served to help us be better prepared to deal with other issues”.

He then elaborated the ways in which the program could be enhanced. These included:

1. Overcoming stigma (He appealed to the Press to help with this)

2. Need for a surveillance system

3. Need to upscale care and treatment

4. Need for voluntary counseling

5. Need for a paradigm shift in risk reduction (“This conference is addressing this issue.”)

The Minister than concluded that we have to do this now because HIV/AIDS does not give us time. “In 10 years we won’t have a country”. He then explained that while the Ministry had accepted the ABCD of AIDS prevention, they had concentrated on C (Condom) leaving behind A (Abstinence), B (Be faithful) and D (Don’t use drugs). “I am happy that Varqa Foundation has chosen to focus on the spiritual approach and will concentrate on AB and D. We can prevent further infection by having a strong moral approach to this problem”.

The Minister of Health spoke with great passion and humility and was very positive in his speech. Everyone was moved.

Dr. Davachi was the next speaker. He began by saying that the world was going through a moral and spiritual crisis and needed a moral and spiritual solution. He spoke about the moral and spiritual education of children as an essential foundation for making moral, healthy and responsible choices later in life. He cited the example of Uganda and demonstrated that reaching children, before puberty, with the message of abstinence and faithfulness resulted in an 80% reduction in HIV infection in girls 15-19 years old in an 8 year period. He contrasted the example of Uganda and the visionary attitude of President Museveni with other countries that are now subjected to tremendous increases in HIV/AIDS. He said that HIV/AIDS has become a permanent human disease. Even if a vaccine or cure was found, this was no guarentee that the disease would disappear. “We have wonderful vaccines for Hepititis B and Tuberculosis, but both of these diseases are increasing. We have marvelous cures for syphillis and malaria, but syphillis is increasing dramatically and malaria killed three million people last year.” The hope for controlling HIV/AIDS is in prevention. “If 65 million people have so far been infected with HIV/AIDS, would you say that we have a good prevention program? The fact that 65 million people are infected and alcohol and drug abuse, violence and crime are going through the roof, is scientific proof in itself that the current preventive measures are, at best, insufficient.” He then showed two graphs prepared by the World Health Organization. The first showed the dramatic decrease of HIV/AIDS in young women in Uganda. The second demonstrated the sharp increase in HIV/AIDS in Latin America and the Caribbean. “Once five percent of a country is infected, that is one out of every twenty persons, the infection spreads rapidly and is very difficult to control. Some of the Caribbean countries are at that point. It is essential to put into place a good prevention program.” He also mentioned the abstinence education law passed in the United States and the decreased in teenage pregnancies, STDs and HIV/AIDS among youth where the program was applied.

Dr. Davachi spoke extensively about the need for unity, that moral and spiritual education of children was in the interest of the welfare and wellbeing of the nation and therefore it should be carried out in unity by all political parties and religions.

“It must supercede political and religious agendas. When it comes to the welfare and well being of the nation, we need unity. “HIV/AIDS is a war on the nation, it requires all forces to unitedly fight this war.” The moral and spiritual education of children is one element that everyone can agree on and unite around.

He then asked the audience, “If by some miraculous means we were able to eliminate AIDS today, when you wake up tomorrow morning, do you have any other problems?” The audience laughed and said “many.” “Alcohol and drug abuse, violence, crime, prejudice, hatred, intolerance, poverty and a host of other problems are waiting for you to wake up. AIDS is just one of the symptoms. We can not eliminate the symptoms one by one, we need to treat the underlying cause – the moral crisis.” Until we dealt with the underlying moral crisis, we could not hope to effectively treat the problems.

He then spoke about teaching children the virtues as part of a basic moral education program. He also mentioned the necessity of teaching them about unity in diversity, the equality of women and men, the elimination of prejudices. He said, “In the Baha’i Faith it says, “Deny not My servant should he ask anything from thee, for his face is My face; be then abashed before Me.” Imagine how it would be if we saw the face of God in every face. How would we treat each other? We would act with humility, reverence, kindliness, respect and courtesy. We want to teach the children to acquire these virtues. We want to teach them unity in diversity, that we are different in race, religion, nationality and education, but we are one family. Moral and Spiritual education of children treats the underlying cause of our social ills.

After the break, the four major religions of Guyana were invited to give their perspectives concerning the prevention of HIV/AIDS.

The Moslem representative said that the Moslems agreed with Dr. Davachi’s perspective and were working on that front.

The Christian representative, Ms. Elizabeth Cummings from the Guyana Council of Churches, began by saying she was delighted with Dr. Davachi’s comments on the moral and spiritual education of children. “We believe that Guyana needs a moral and spiritual revival and we are working with young people for that”. She then explained that initially they believed that HIV/AIDS had nothing to with Christians, but now they are changing. We have had to comfort relatives of those with AIDS and many children have lost their parents, so the Christians realized that they had to come on board. In August of this year they had a consultation to impart knowledge about AIDS and to let the various churches under their jurisdiction know that they can play a part. She said that the Minister of Health has encouraged them to become partners and while they have not officially become partners yet, they are working on it. In the meantime, they are talking about the necessity of living pure, moral lives. They are going to the churches to talk to young people about morals because they feel that the young people are under tremendous pressure from the television to have sex. “We tell them,” she said “That you can stand up and be different and still be recognized. Young people can influence their friends and siblings.”

While the Christians believe in abstinence and faithfulness, they are also aware that some youth will not adhere to this and, therefore, they are also telling them about condoms. They are teaching them about “responsibility” with the hope that the next generation will be free from HIV/AIDS and STIs. “We need to teach and preach morals, not just the Faith. Children as young as nine years old are having sex. We know our society has deteriorated. Due to poverty, families live in one room. Children are exposed to many things. We tell them that this is not what is expected of children.”

Mrs. Cummings concluded that she believed that most of their churches now realized that they have to be involved. “We realize that we can no longer hide and sweep this under the carpet. We have to be involved.”

The next speaker was Mr. Francis Persaud, representing the Hindus. He began by expressing his appreciation for this joint initiative. “We believe that a problem shared is a problem solved, and are forced to accept that if we are not a part of the solution then we are part of the problem”. He then cited some verses of Hindu scripture indicating the need for cooperation and said that this justifies their participation in any collective endeavor. Basing his statements on their Holy Writings, he said that in all cases of human affliction, it is the duty of the Hindu to help those who have strayed return to the right path and to cultivate the power of self-discipline to control one’s passions. He also explained the sacredness of marriage and producing offspring in the Hindu tradition and said that they advocate monogamy as a way to prevent the spread of AIDS.

The Hindus are sensitizing their members as to causes and symptoms of AIDS and are stressing prevention. They recognize that the most vulnerable segment of the population is the youth. This month, they agreed to become involved with HIV/AIDS prevention countrywide. He then said that Hindus tend to follow blindly their traditions and to be too ritualistic. “We need a more educational approach, “he said. “We stand ready to support any initiative to improve the lot of mankind.”

The next speaker was Counselor Rebqua Murphy representing the Baha’i Faith. She explained that we have been created by love and cited the Hidden Word “I knew My love for thee; therefore I created thee…”) She then explained that the Baha’is pray for their children from the moment of conception and that their goal is to raise spiritual beings who will serve humanity. “The mind that created the problem, can not solve it,” she said. “We live in a fundamentally different world from our grandparents. We need to change the way we feel, act and interact.”

She then spoke about the equality of women and men and the principle of the necessity of educating girls, even giving them preference over the education of boys if necessary because, “an ignorant mother perpetuates ignorance for generations.” Girls must be educated to raise spiritual children who from infancy know that they are noble beings. The challenge is to raise spiritual beings on the ashes of a decadent society. Children should learn to respect others even if those people do not respect themselves.

She then touched on the elimination of prejudices, mentioning that this included being prejudice against those with HIV/AIDS and on the oneness of mankind, saying that we are a single family and should suffer for the children in Africa as we suffer for our own. She explained that in the Baha’i Faith there were no priests or clergy and that every Baha’i had to spiritualize himself in order to spiritualize the world. The family is a microcosm of the world. If the family is healthy, then the nation is healthy.

The room was in absolute silence during this talk and one everyone was deeply affected by these words.

The last speaker was Mr. Godfry Frank, the country program advisor for UNAIDS. He began by saying that after listening to the talks at this conference, he was confident in the process. He thanked the organizers for such a conference and greatly appreciated the multisectorial approach. This activity, he felt was opportune because of the need for all sectors of the society to be involved. “There is a definite link between moral and spiritual upliftment and change,” he said. He encouraged moral and spiritual education of the young people and said that they should have the priority.

He then cited examples of success around the world beginning with Uganda, giving the same statistics that Dr. Davachi gave among girls 15-19 years of age. He also mentioned that in Ethiopia there was a decreased from 25% in 1995 to %15 in 2001 through an intensified educational program in young people. These positive trends show that prevention in young people can be effective. Similar programs in the Bahamas, Bermuda and Barbados have resulted in a decline in young people and in the Dominican Republic there has been stabilization and a reduction in sexual partners. On the contrary Asia and the Pacific region are seeing a steady increase in drug use and this is a major cause of new infections.

He then cited the critical role that religions can play in the prevention of HIV/AIDS and gave a detailed explanation of the IMANS program in Uganda, which began in 1989. This was the Muslim’s community’s response to HIV/AIDS, which incorporated Islamic values into their program. He said they declared a jihad against AIDS and established workshops, dialogues and HIV/AIDS education. Team leaders were trained to give correct information to the people. Abstinence and faithfulness were taught in the schools and by the NGOs. This resulted in a decrease of HIV/AIDS infection in Girls 15-19 years old from 38% in 1989 to 7.3% in 1997. When spiritual teachings were linked with HIV/AIDS education, the result is behavioral changes. Therefore there is a significant role for religious and cultural leadership.

He concluded by saying that this conference was an opportunity to bring people of like minds together. Religious efforts are an important part and he encouraged all the religions present to attend an implementation workshop that was to be given in January.

The last speaker was Dr. Brian O’Toole of Varqa Foundation. He began by citing the traditional concept of education, which tended to look at the children as a receptacle to be filled, where the teacher did all the talking, acting and effort in a “conquest of the learner”. The Youth Can Move the World project is moving away from that model. It focuses on transformation and is based on moral and spiritual development of the individual. He then quoted the verse, “Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value.” “We believe that those gems exist,” he said. The task of the teacher is to awaken them to enable the children to think, act and be creative. He then spoke about service to mankind as a key to unlocking human capacity, about moral leadership, the exploration of capabilities through reflection on strengths and weaknesses and the ability to search for solutions. Encouragement of others, he indicated, was the most precious quality a teacher could possess and that encouragement can bring about change.

He then spoke about the Youth Can Move the World Program, including the use of arts to reach people and the youth leadership program, which helps youth face problems and explore ways to deal with them. The program, which aims at personal and community transformation, trains youth in moral leadership. They, in turn, go out and help other youth to go through the program. At completion they receive credits and a certificate from the university. This is truly a program, which aims at personal and community transformation rather than just imparting information. Approximately 300 youth have gone through this program and are training others.

The conference was a remarkable success with new ideas and a spirit, which touched all the participants deeply. The collaboration between the National Spiritual Assembly, the International Baha’i Community, the Varqa Foundation and UNICEF was, no doubt, the magnet attracting such a vital spirit of unity and joy. In spite of the gravity of the situation of HIV/AIDS in the country and the horrendous statistics given by many speakers, the atmosphere was one of great positivity and optimism.

Related Links:

Dr. Ramsammy's Powerpoint Presentation

Dr. Edward's Powerpoint Presentation