Connector Articles

Empowering Faith Leaders to End AIDS Stigma

December 11, 2017

by Kathy Erb

In the photo above, Reverend Pearson Banda of the Reformed Church in Zambia writes a message about HIV and the Church in the first workshop for religious leaders that David Barstow attended in Zambia in 2007.  

David Barstow, PhD, President of EMPACT Africa

While commitments from governments and large international organizations to fund AIDS research, treatment and prevention are critical, the saying “Think globally, act locally” may be appropriate for how faith leaders can make a difference in their own communities. David Barstow, a Computer Science PhD who is now President of CCIH member EMPACT Africa,  which focuses on empowering faith leaders to end the stigma of AIDS, shares his thoughts on the global effort to end the epidemic and the necessity of local actions.

What is the current state of AIDS today? Where are we in the effort of ending the epidemic by 2030?

We are at a tipping point; we’ve made great progress and can end AIDS if we keep up the effort, but there’s a significant risk of moving backward, which will cost tens of millions of lives. If we ultimately fail to end AIDS, it will be because of two reasons. One is that the world may simply lack the collective political will to keep going. The other is that the social and moral issues may prove to be too complex.

Your organization EMPACT Africa is devoted to empowering faith leaders in Africa to respond to the AIDS epidemic. How did you first develop the idea that faith leaders could be such a powerful force in this crisis?

I was inspired by Reverend Pearson Banda of the Reformed Church in Zambia, who unfortunately passed away recently. He was the head of the church’s HIV office when I first met him in 2007. He was leading a workshop with faith leaders from local congregations in a remote area of Zambia. He talked about the huge problems caused by the stigma of AIDS and then described the role local faith leaders can play in reducing stigma. Local faith leaders have great influence over people’s attitudes, not only among their members, but also in the wider community. Local faith leaders are a key leverage point in fighting the social and moral issues associated with AIDS.

This is why acting against stigma must be part of Christian leadership. We have the example of Christ and his work with lepers, who also faced stigma. Faith leaders can turn their congregations into places of hope and compassion for people with HIV, not places of fear and rejection.

Why does stigma have such an impact on the AIDS crisis?

The roots of stigma are in fear and in judgmental attitudes: fear about a mysterious disease and judgmental attitudes because HIV and AIDS are associated with behavior that many people consider to be bad. Stigma often stops people from doing what is sensible, like getting tested and treated, because they worry about what the neighbors will say.

There are actually two aspects of stigma. One aspect is against people who are already infected with HIV. The other aspect is against people from marginalized populations, such as sex workers or men who have sex with men, who are at increased risk of infection. Taken together, these two aspects can make stigma very hard to reduce or eliminate.

What were your main activities to engage faith leaders in reducing AIDS stigma, and what has EMPACT Africa’s work entailed?

I worked with Reverend Banda for three years conducting workshops in Zambia. We reached the leaders of about 150 congregations of the Reformed Church in Zambia with training on how they could reduce stigma in their congregations. EMPACT Africa has also worked with national denominations in several other countries in southern Africa to develop training programs. We start by training denominational leaders, who then train leadership teams from local faith communities. Based on our experience, we created a guidebook to help local faith leaders reduce stigma in their congregations. The guidebook is available in about a dozen languages.

You also worked with CABSA (Christian AIDS Bureau of Southern Africa) on a framework for measuring stigma in faith communities. Can you tell us more about that?

A South African AIDS Activist lights a candle during a devotional at a workshop on stigma.

One of the big challenges with AIDS stigma in local faith communities is to understand the true scope of the problem. Studies have shown that stigma has a significant effect on people’s willingness to get tested and treated for HIV, and we have some evidence about stigma in faith communities, but we don’t really know the scope of the problem. There are probably more than a million local faith communities in Africa. How many of them have problems with stigma?

We don’t know the answer to that question, but I got a sense for it when I was running a workshop at the 2016 AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa. There were about 50 people in the workshop, about half from the country of South Africa and most of the rest from other parts of Africa.
I asked the crowd if they thought 10 percent of local faith communities were “actively judgmental” against people with HIV. The participants just laughed. I asked if it was 25 percent, and they laughed again. It was only when I got to 50 percent, did people think that was realistic. That is a huge barrier to fighting the epidemic.

When I reversed the question and asked how many congregations are trying to reduce stigma, the workshop attendees said they felt like fewer than 10 percent of faith communities are actively trying to reduce stigma. Our goal should be to flip that so that half of the congregations are actively working to reduce stigma and only 10 percent or less are actively judgmental.

We worked with CABSA to develop a more objective way to measure stigma in local faith communities. (Faith and Stigma on the Fast Track) The tool guides a faith community through a series of questions to help them measure if they are reducing stigma, neutral to stigma or actually increasing stigma around AIDS. The tool has been used informally in a few situations, but there haven’t yet been any formal studies.

Other than reduce stigma, what else can people of faith do to help end the AIDS epidemic?

Another critical role for people of faith involves awareness and advocacy. AIDS seems to have fallen out of public consciousness. We need to remind people that this epidemic is still here and still a significant public health challenge. The lack of public attention has contributed to the loss of political will to end AIDS. For example, the current U.S. administration’s budget proposal reduced funding for AIDS and overall global health funding, but fortunately, it looks like bipartisan support for HIV programs will keep the budget for those programs steady. However, people of faith need to continue to advocate for AIDS funding so we do not lose the progress we have made.

What other projects are you working on and what are their goals?

One big project is a documentary film about the future of the AIDS epidemic. Our goal is to re-raise public awareness about AIDS. It is a “future documentary,” set in the year 2030, when a panel at an AIDS conference addresses the topic “How We Lost the War Against AIDS.” The panelists in the future describe the missed opportunities that led to a resurgence of AIDS in the 2020s. Of course, in 2017, the missed opportunities haven’t yet been missed. We hope the film will help ensure that we take advantage of the opportunities and that the world continues to work collectively to ends AIDS. We are planning to release the full documentary at next summer’s AIDS conference in July.

For more on the film, see a trailer and visit the website at
Contact David Barstow at davidb [at]


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