Start Free – Stay Free: Jesuits support campaign for World AIDS Day

AJAN Youth Against AIDS training in Zimbabwe - Darrin Zammit Lupi
AJAN Youth Against AIDS training in Zimbabwe - Darrin Zammit Lupi

The full development of young people and their ability to bring about an AIDS-free society are vital in the battle against the pandemic, according to the Jesuits in Africa. In a message for World AIDS Day (tomorrow), the African Jesuit AIDS Network (AJAN) insists that young people should not be denied their potential and that a simplistic response does not adequately address the situation.

“Harnessing the ability of young people to take good decisions and to act wisely and compassionately is crucial to face up to the AIDS pandemic,” says Fr Michael Lewis SJ, President of Jesuit Superiors of Africa and Madagascar (JESAM). “On World AIDS Day 2016, AJAN wants to reiterate its conviction that fighting AIDS is not only about sex; neither is it just about fighting a virus. It is about promoting integral human development, not least among young people, to allow them to live their own lives to the full and to contribute actively to bringing about an AIDS-free society.”

AJAN is promoting such development through AHAPPY, an innovative life-skills programme with a Christian and value-based character, which has been piloted in Catholic schools and other educational institutions in nine countries across sub-Saharan Africa. In an evaluation conducted in 2015, the AHAPPY programme was lauded for bringing about concrete changes in the lives of young people coming from diverse faith backgrounds.

“Through AHAPPY and other programmes, AJAN is contributing to the goals of the Start Free, Stay Free, AIDS Free campaign spearheaded by UNAIDS to end AIDS specifically among children, adolescents and young women by 2020,” explains Fr Lewis. “The focus on young people, especially adolescents, is rooted in the fact that they are so badly affected by AIDS. The statistics are sobering. The incidence of new infections remains particularly high among adolescents: an average of 29 adolescents are infected every hour worldwide, and girls account for 75% of new HIV infections among this age group in sub-Saharan Africa. In this continent, AIDS is the leading cause of death among adolescents.” 

Vital partners in this missionAJAN Youth Against AIDS training in Zimbabwe - Darrin Zammit Lupi

This disturbing reality prompted AJAN to develop a methodology and tool kit to prevent HIV infection among young people. However, it is also concerned about some other responses, such as the 'Comprehensive Sexuality Education' (CSE) for schools, proposed by some international organisations. AJAN is not alone in voicing this concern: parents worldwide have come together in groups to stop CSE and a major Stop CSE campaign has been launched.

“It is unwise to assume that young people have decided to be sexually active and to offer a simplistic response based on this narrow assumption,” says Fr Lewis. “Young men and women search for the best life has to offer but often are thwarted in their endeavours by their circumstances. To think otherwise does not do justice, neither to young people nor to the complex root causes of AIDS. It is far from enough to dole out contraceptives and information.”

AJAN is a Jesuit mission that perseveres in its "work of mercy" to minister to people who are living with HIV and to prevent others from becoming infected by a virus that causes pain far beyond its physical manifestations. “Young people are vital partners in this mission of ours,” says Fr Lewis. “Today, we celebrate their contribution, we thank them, and we urge more and more young people to come forward to join the struggle against AIDS. As a network belonging to the Society of Jesus, AJAN subscribes to the tradition elaborated by its founder, St Ignatius, and reiterated by Pope Francis in October, when he addressed the 36th General Congregation of the Jesuits in Rome, and told delegates: ‘Where there is pain, there the Society (of Jesus) is’."

Jesuit Missions in Britain provides outreach to those living with HIV/AIDS across sub-Saharan Africa by working with AJAN, which is based in Nairobi. It also supports its work at the Centre Esperance Loyola (CEL) in Lome in Togo. AJAN’S mission is to help Jesuits in sub-Saharan Africa to respond to HIV and AIDS in an effective, evangelical and coordinated manner. Most of AJAN’s AIDS ministries are embedded in traditional Jesuit works such as parishes, social projects and communications, high-school education and university chaplaincy, Ignatian spirituality and Jesuit formation.