"Religion plays an important role in fighting the social stigma attached to people who have HIV/AIDS," says college student, Rita Shrestha, who believes that activism should take a new direction against the epidemic. Public awareness should not be limited to just street campaigns but can be more effectively used by religious leaders to reach out to their communities. "Our priests should be involved in educating the community about the disease as people take them very seriously," says Shrestha, who represented Nepali youth at a conference, South Asia Inter-faith Consultation: Young People and HIV/AIDS, held here in Kathmandu.
A delegation of 140 youth, religious leaders and religious groups from Buddhist, Muslim, Christian and Baha'i communities around South Asia met in the city to discuss their response to the HIV epidemic in the region. "Religious leaders are in a unique position. They are listened to. This is an important anti-AIDS initiative that could have significant results in combating the epidemic," says Sadig Rasheed, regional director of Unicef South Asia. It is estimated that South Asia is home to 5 million people living with HIV/AIDS and the disease is spreading widely in all eight countries due to the lack of knowledge, denial and stigma, an uneven health infrastructure and social behaviour.
One of the serious concerns raised was the cultural and social pressures that prevents the afflicted from seeking treatment. "Stigma and prejudice ostracises those in need of compassion," says Rasheed. With 1.25 million children and young people living with HIV, Unicef is encouraging youth to work as activists by raising awareness and reaching out directly to communities, both adult and young. "When I return home, I want to organise awareness programs in the villages and towns with the help of my friends," says 16-year-old Raviraj Dugar from India. Prabudha Dayama, a schoolboy from Mumbai, wants to see religious leaders shaking hands and counseling their communities. "They can help to moderate the inner conscience of their people. They can help to talk about AIDS in public, which can reduce social stigma," says Dugar. In the Indian state of Maharastra, 200 schools have introduced AIDS Prevention Awareness Program (APAP) for senior students as a compulsory extra-curricular course. "I'm sure that youth in Nepal will make a difference and bring a new kind of activism by encouraging religious leaders to work with us," concludes Shrestha.