My HIV, my gift – Cleric

“I take my status as a person living positively with HIV as a huge gift from God. It demands of me to see that I have an inherent dignity as God’s creation,” Reverend Johannes-Petrus Mokgethi-Health said.

A very unusual attitude from a Reverend as Church representatives and people in general tend to see HIV infections as a result of sinful life hence discriminate those living positively with HIV.

The Malawi Human Rights Commission noted in a report people living with HIV about 1 in 10 Malawians have been subjected to all kinds of ridicule and discrimination and some have been denied essential services such as health and education.

But the involvement of people living with HIV in various interventions has put a face and a voice to the pandemic thereby breaking the silence and reducing stigma and discrimination, according to the Malawi Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS (Manet+)

By the way, Reverend Mokgethi-Health is the Executive Director of the International Network of people for Religious Leaders Living with or personally affected by HIV (INERELA+) that has programmes spanning 19 countries in Africa and Latin America.

But for the South African based Anglican Reverend, who is of different sexual orientation, it seems this is also ‘gospel’ truth.

“One of the things that make the gay community vulnerable is the conspiracy of silence, the lack of a framework and models in terms of leading people into long term monogamous relationships,” said the 47 year old, Cleric who initially studied Economics and Accountancy.

Eleven years ago the Reverend suffered from an eye-sight problem. And this was literally an eye-opener as it shepherded him into a new world.

A world, where people living positively with HIV suffer stigma and discrimination regardless of status or social standing in society.

The eye problem soon turned out to be a minor issue. The real shock came when the Cleric underwent an HIV test with a positive result.

According to the 2011 UNAIDS World report many countries have made significant progress in the response to HIV and AIDS. But stigma and discrimination in whatever form remains high, pervasive, and intractable and is reversing strides made in response to the pandemic.

Currently, 79 countries worldwide including Malawi still have anti Homophobic laws or laws that criminalise HIV.

The last 11 years have not been rosy for the towering bespectacled Reverend, who speaks with a baritone voice.

He has suffered numerous ‘interrogations’ at most airports around the world because of his status and the most poignant being in America where an Immigration Officer publicly ridiculed him.

But for a 22-year-old German man the discovery that he was HIV positive in 2009 could have ended tragically if NGOs had delayed to support him cope with the news.

“My family and friends were shocked. They started distancing themselves from me. Sometimes they asked me, Can I touch you? Or Can I use the same toilet with you? But they failed to help me,” said Marcel Adams, who is now a Role Model of the German Campaign for World AIDS Day.

The soft-spoken model, whose face now stares at Bill Boards and posters in Germany and is the de facto HIV Ambassador, says people with HIV need to speak out for themselves.

“No one speaks about us, we speak for ourselves. And its also important for Family and friends to have adequate information regarding HIV and AIDS so that they stay behind us,” Adams said.

Germany’s Federal Minister of Health Daniel Bahr hailed Adams involvement in the country’s response to HIV and AIDS as “a shining example of a young man who is giving people courage”

Bahr said this during a HIV High level and Experts Conference held in the Germany’s Capital Berlin under the theme “Health. Right. Now! HIV Prevention without Barriers”

Germany’s Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development and the Federal Ministry of Health co-sponsored the event that pooled experts from Africa, America and Europe.

Be it a Catholic Cleric from South Africa or a young student from Germany, they all face a common fear that transcends international borders. To lose their friends, their families, even their jobs if their HIV-infection is known.

But Reverend Mokgethi-Health is optimistic that a world where there is no stigma and discrimination is possible.

“There is need for the inherent dignity to express itself in the affirmation of humanity. If we do that together then we can move together to a place where we can mitigate each other’s vulnerability,” he said.

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