"Is not the object of every Revelation to effect a transformation in the whole character of mankind, a transformation that shall manifest itself, both outwardly and inwardly, that shall affect both its inner life and external conditions?"
HIV and AIDS - Transforming Attitudes and Behaviours
The Baha'i Community of India and HIV and AIDS Prevention
Baha'is believe strongly that the root of the solution to any human problem will be found in spiritual principles.
The Universal House of Justice, the international governing council of the Baha'i Faith, put it this way in its October 1985 statement, The Promise of World Peace:
“There are spiritual principles, or what some call human values, by which solutions can be found for every social problem. Any well intentioned group can in a general sense devise practical solutions to its problems, but good intentions and practical knowledge are usually not enough. The essential merit of spiritual principle is that it not only presents a perspective which harmonizes with that which is immanent in human nature, it also induces an attitude, a dynamic, a will, an aspiration, which facilitate the discovery and implementation of practical measures. Leaders of governments and all in authority would be well served in their efforts to solve problems if they would first seek to identify the principles involved and then be guided by them.”
The following statement contains spiritual principles that provide the framework for developing appropriate practical measures. These underlying principles serve to identify two populations who can play a key role in the solution to the problems caused by HIV and AIDS: men and faith communities.
The National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of India notes that religious communities can play a key role in fostering the change of heart that will lead to changes in behaviour that will make possible an effective response to the HIV and AIDS epidemic.
The Baha'i Community of India is itself actively engaged in a wide range of activities in every state in the country to help reduce vulnerability to HIV and AIDS and build a foundation to mitigate its social impact. These include moral and life skills development for children and young people, programmes to promote gender equality in families and communities, and adult classes on the application of spiritual principles in daily life.
Underlying these efforts is our belief that “the recognition of the oneness of the human family will soften hearts, open minds, and transform attitudes. Such a transformation will lay the groundwork for a rational response to the HIV and AIDS crisis”.
We join partnership with organizations working on prevention and control of the AIDS pandemic, with the leaders of all religions in addressing the challenges posed by HIV and AIDS- motivated by our collective concern for the well-being and progress of society- confident that solutions lie within our grasp.
HIV and AIDS: Transforming Attitudes and Behaviours
The relationship between the AIDS pandemic and gender inequality is gaining recognition globally. New HIV and AIDS infections are now increasing faster among women and girls than among males. The complexity of the challenges in addressing HIV and AIDS is underscored by the undeniable association of AIDS with such an intractable problem as sexism. There is no denying the importance of research, education and cooperation among governments and civil society. However, awareness is growing that a profound change of attitude -- personal, political, and social -- will be necessary to stop the spread of the disease and ensure assistance to those already infected and affected. This article will focus on two of the more significant populations who need to be represented in these global discussions: men, because of the control they have traditionally exercised over women's lives; and faith communities, because of the power they have to influence the hearts and minds of their adherents.
Questioning Traditional Gender-roles
In order to curtail the spread of HIV and AIDS among women, concrete changes need to occur in the sexual attitudes and behaviour of both men and women, but especially men. Fallacious notions about the naturally voracious sexual appetites of men must be addressed. The real consequences to women -- and men of the practice of satisfying one's sexual desires outside of marriage must be fully understood. Educating women and girls is critically important, but the current power imbalance between men and women can prevent a woman from acting in her own interest. Indeed, experience has shown that educating women without educating the men in their lives may put the women at greater risk of violence. Efforts are needed, therefore, to educate both boys and girls to respect themselves and one another. A culture of mutual respect will improve not only the self-esteem of women and girls, but the self-esteem of men and boys as well, which will lead toward more responsible sexual behaviour.
The denial of equality to women not only promotes in men harmful attitudes and habits that affect their families, the workplace, political decisions and international relations; it also contributes substantially to the spread of HIV and AIDS and retards the progress of society. Notice how culturally accepted social inequalities conspire with economic vulnerability to leave women and girls with little or no power to reject unwanted or unsafe sex. Yet, once infected with HIV and AIDS, women are often stigmatized as the source of the disease and persecuted, sometimes violently. Meanwhile, the burden of caring for people living with HIV and AIDS and for children orphaned by the disease falls predominantly on women and in some parts of the world older women. Traditional gender roles that have gone unquestioned for generations must now be re-examined in the light of justice and compassion. Ultimately, nothing short of a spiritual transformation will move men -- and women -- to forego the behaviours that contribute to the spread of AIDS. Such a transformation is as important for men as it is for women, because "As long as women are prevented from attaining their highest possibilities, so long will men be unable to achieve the greatness which might be theirs."
Love and Compassion Instead of Judgmental Attitude
Because the cultivation of humanity's noble, spiritual core has always been the province of religion, religious communities can play an important role in bringing about the change of heart and the consequent change in behaviours that will make possible an effective response to the AIDS crisis.
Religious leaders and people of faith are also called to respond with love and compassion to the intense personal suffering of those either directly or indirectly affected by the AIDS crisis. However, a tendency on the part of society as a whole to judge and blame those afflicted has, since the onset of this disease, stifled compassion for its victims. The subsequent stigmatization of individuals thus afflicted with HIV and AIDS has fostered a profound reluctance on the part of infected individuals to seek treatment and of societies to change cultural attitudes and practices necessary for the prevention and treatment of the disease. Such judgments can be particularly pronounced in religious communities struggling to uphold a high standard of personal conduct. One of the seeming paradoxes of faith is the individual obligation of believers to adhere to a high standard of personal conduct while loving and caring for those who fall short -- for whatever reason -- of that same standard. What is often forgotten is that "moral conduct" includes not only personal restraint but compassion and humility as well. Faith communities will need to strive continually to rid themselves of judgmental attitudes so that they can exert the kind of moral leadership that encourages personal responsibility, love for one another, and the courage to protect vulnerable groups in society.
The fact that over sixty million people in the world have become infected with HIV and AIDS and a huge number in India indicates that current prevention methods are not giving the best results. According to the available data (NACO), about 39% of all cases of HIV and AIDS in India are amongst women. More than 80% of all women living with HIV and AIDS have had only one life partner. Early marriage, low awareness, violence, sexual abuse low socioeconomic status increase women’s risk of contracting the disease. All these contribute towards the feminization of the epidemic. Another category of the population that are very vulnerable to the disease are youth below the age of 29 and adolescents. 35% of reported AIDS cases are below the age of 29. Adolescents form 22% of the population. Issues that contribute towards making this group vulnerable are:
1. Inadequate knowledge especially amongst rural boys and girls.
24% drug users are in the age group of 12-18 years. Alcohol and drug abuse amongst the youth is another factor that contributes to the high percentage amongst them being affected by the AIDS.
As we have not been able to contain the infection nor find a cure or vaccine, our main focus must be on prevention.
For the past twenty years, educational awareness and prevention campaigns have focused on safe sex. More recently the concept of abstinence and faithfulness, as the surest protection, has been drawing increasing attention.
The debate about abstinence and prevention of HIV should be understood in the social and cultural context in which we live. The need for concerted efforts in imparting moral and spiritual education to children cannot be overemphasized. It is the most important tool towards individual and social transformation. So on the one hand is the recognition of the importance of ‘moral education’ in order to influence behaviour. The other is that moral education by itself is not enough in a society where ‘moral’ people may be forced to act against their beliefs due to poverty or social injustice. There are certain spiritual ideals in every religious belief system that the followers of that religion aspire to. Chastity, fidelity and compassion are principles found in all Holy Books and play an essential role in the prevention of HIV, removal of stigma and the care of those affected. The other spiritual principles found in the world religions are justice, care of the poor and oppressed, and detachment. The relationship of chastity and fidelity to HIV prevention is pretty obvious and hence it has entered the debate. The relationship of justice to the treatment of women, and of generosity and detachment to the gap between the rich and the poor are less openly acknowledged and often thought to be beyond the mandates of governments and agencies of civil society. It should also be obvious, that without addressing issues of social injustice, inequalities and unequal distribution of resources, there is little hope for lasting change in any ‘development’ program.
Then, taking the social and cultural context into consideration, there are other issues that need to be addressed to tackle HIV in our country and many other countries: lack of education, lack of facilities, poverty, substance abuse and lack of factual information. HIV prevention therefore should be seen as part of holistic community development.
The Baha'i writings encourage the application of spiritual principles to social problems, which is one of the reasons that children’s moral education and junior youth spiritual empowerment program are pursued as two of the core activities of Baha'is throughout India and the world. In India alone there are over 1500 classes for children's moral education and 500 junior youth groups.
A Bahá'í Programme for Community Development:
It is imperative that followers of religion ensure that all they say and do, promotes unity in the community. The first institution to turn to when to build a united society is the family. Promotion of family life is part of both the prevention of the spread of HIV infection and part of the treatment of AIDS and AIDS related diseases. A large burden of the care of people living with AIDS falls on their families.
The Baha'i Institute Process
A recent statement on the vision of the Baha'i community issued by the international governing body of the Baha'i Faith stated that:
“We, the followers of Bahá’u’lláh, dedicated ourselves to the unity of all the people, to the removal of all prejudice and injustice, and to the establishment of universal and lasting peace.”
To this end, the Baha'is have been embarking on a grass-roots distance education programme, aimed at both spiritual transformation of individuals and community building. Part of this programme is concerned with HIV prevention, but to understand the part one must grasp the concept of the whole So what follows is a brief introduction to the programme.
Over thirty years ago, the Baha'is in Columbia in South America started a course of books that imparted knowledge, value, attitudes and skills that would help people build united communities. These books gradually found their way into other communities, were used, experiences were gained and as a result of the generated knowledge, the books were re-written and better suited to fulfill their goals until now this has become a global Baha'i Institute programme that is studied in small groups all over the world. Like any organic, grass roots programme, the Institute is continuously changing, developing and perfecting both the material and methodologies as more people from different cultures take part in the process of community building. At the moment there are seven core books in the process and a total of 21 books are in being piloted in different parts of the world. Each core book is linked to a service activity. For example, the first book looks at the purpose of life, the importance of prayer and reading the Holy Writing. The natural service activity to spring from such discussion is the devotional meeting. Participants who study this book then start their own devotional meetings in their communities where Holy Writing from all religions are chanted and discussed. At the moment there are four core activities that are undertaken by Baha'is throughout the world. These are devotional meetings, moral education classes for children, junior youth spiritual empowerment programmes and study circles in which the institute books are studied by adults.
We can think of these courses as an organic process that involves participatory learning at the local level. As there is no priesthood in the Baha'i Faith, anyone can be the facilitator of the study of the courses. An individual can also develop and progress according to both his or her own needs and the needs of the community. A tree is a good organic metaphor for understanding how it works. The trunk of the tree is the core courses and service activities. From this trunk branches out courses specific to the needs of the community. For example, education, empowerment of women, health and agriculture are some of the branches that are being developed around the world. In the future, when these programmes have been fully tested and adapted, they will be part of the institute programme globally. It is important to note that these courses are run with the minimum of infrastructure and the service activities are voluntary acts of service by individual in their spare time.
The Global Health Programme
The health Programme is a branch of the Institute programme and it has been tested in many parts of India, Malaysia and Africa .It is now almost ready for launching globally. A Baha'i Inspired organization in Zambia is testing the final modules of the programme and finding out the best ways of administering the training of family Health Educator and community Health Educator so that it can be sustaining and expanded. The consultant of the Bahá'í community of India for HIV and AIDS Prevention, Dr. Nicole Mohajer, is going to Africa shortly to consult about launching the programme in India.
As you can see from the figure, after the two books of the Institute programme, a person can choose to study a book called “The Health Family” that contains basic primary health care information. The information is divided into spiritual understanding, scientific understandings, a skill, a story about someone who has to face problem related to social, cultural or other obstacle in the community and an education page with picture to show family members. Those members of community who are interested in learning more about health and have the capacity to mobilize their community can then continue to study the institute programme until they reach book seven. After book seven they can specialize as a Community Health Educator. The Basic manual, “The Healthy
Health Education Programme
What we are beginning to see is a system where every extended family has a person trained as a Family Health Educator who can be a resource person. Then each village will have at least two Community Health Educator to identity health problems in the village and also mobilize the community to prevent, treat and manage health problems. The most important and effective part of the programme is the spiritual understanding. For the HIV and AIDS module, the spiritual understandings look at the spiritual qualities needed to face calamities to help people and their families who are affected by HIV and AIDS and to become moral leaders in the fight against HIV spread.
This detailed description of the programme was necessary to emphasize that HIV prevention cannot occur in a vacuum. The HIV and AIDS manual is pat of a comprehensive programme that aims at turning people back to reading of the Holy Writings, educating children and youth, building strong families and looking at the moral motivations for behaviour change. HIV did not appear overnight. The behaviour that cause it to spread did not appear overnight. The solution will also take time but only if we work together unitedly to build strong communities, full of compassion with a service orientation.
This is something that concerns us all, but our main focus should be on action at the grass roots. As all the scriptures say, service to humanity is worship of God.
• As HIV infection moves from the high-risk population into the general population, particularly to housewives and children, the need for creating an enabling environment that would encourage voluntary testing and remove discrimination and stigma is becoming vital. The negative image of the disease needs to be addressed.
• To create an enabling environment that is culturally appropriate for advocacy on HIV and AIDS in the state that will reach the general public
Farida Vahedi and Nicole Mohajer