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Cross-disciplinary workshop commemorating World Aids Day illustrates the value of collaboration

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Cross-disciplinary workshop commemorating World Aids Day illustrates the value of collaboration

On 28 and 29 November, the Faculties of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS), Economic and Management Sciences (EMS) and Theology jointly hosted a consultative workshop about the role of faith-based organisations (FBOs) in health management. The event provided a platform for representatives from these disciplines to review, engage and collaborate on the topical issue of community health and opportuntuties and gaps relating to the involvement of FBOs.

FBOs and religious leaders are often the gatekeepers to society and play a key role in shaping behavioural norms. As Dr Jeannine Uwimana-Nicol, senior researcher at FMHS, pointed out: “In Africa, FBOs and health providers are repsonsible for over 60% of healthcare provision. In terms of equity in access to healthcare, FBOs are the ones connecting with hard-to-reach communities.” Failure to include FBOs in the global health agenda has played a significant role in unsatisfactory progress with reaching health outcomes.

Day 1’s theme was the impact and contribution of FBOs on maternal, newborn and child health (MNCH) in Africa. Representatives from South Africa, Malawi, Ghana, Rwanda, Uganda and Nigeria presented case studies of FBOs playing a role in strengthening health systems in their respective countries.

To kick off the individual presenter sessions, Uwimana-Nicol reviewed current evidence from FBOs that provide MNCH services such as obstetrics, sexual education and immunisation in several African countries. While more research is necessary, the data shows a correlation between FBO service provision and reduced maternal morbidity and mortality as well as increased uptake of maternal health services.

Other speakers included Khadija Richards from Wits University, Dr Lungiswa Tsolekile from the School of Public Health at UWC and Prof Debra Jackson from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in the UK.

In commemoration of World Aids Day on 1 December, the presentations and discussions on Day 2 focused on the role of FBOs and religious leaders in managing HIV/Aids and being part of the community health agenda. This year’s theme was “Let communities lead”. Dr Munya Saruchera, director of the Africa Centre for HIV/Aids Management, emphasised the importance of this focus, given the historic exclusion and marginalisation of key community role players in the fight against HIV/Aids. “Science, business, industry and researchers have forged ahead and left communities behind; yet, these communities, including FBOs and schools, have played a vital role in home-based care and prevention.”

Saruchera highlighted the Africa Centre’s contribution to working with FBOs and religious leaders in HIV/Aids management and care. The centre has forged partnerships with several FBOs and local communities through which a range of services are provided, such as fundraising support, accounting, personnel, office space and the opportunity for FBO representatives to enrol in the centre’s academic programmes. In addition, the Africa Centre’s flagship academic programme, the Postgraduate Diploma in HIV/Aids Management (PgDip), includes a unit on the role of FBOs and religion in prevention and care of people living with HIV and Aids. FBO leaders are engaged in designing, updating and presenting this module.

The insights about the important role of FBOs in health management convinced Simba Pondani, a PhD candidate from the Faculty of Theology who attended the workshop, to enrol for the PgDip in 2024. “There is currently no discourse or even language relating to HIV and Aids in the Pentecostal branch of Christianity,” he remarked. “As a change agent who is exposed to many age groups and communities, I must play a role in tackling this issue.”

Despite the critical position of FBOs in communities and the evidence of a positive impact, there is much room for improvement. Saruchera highlighted stigma, a lack of skills on how to mobilise resources, segmented communication, and complete disregard for the link between gender-based violence and HIV/Aids as some of the biggest failures of FBOs.

Day 2 also included a candle-lighthing ceremony in memory of people who have succumbed to Aids and in hope for everyone affected by HIV that the battle will eventually be won.

In closing remarks the chief director of operations at SANAC, Dr Rogerio Phiri, stressed the importance of the faith sector in the fight against HIV/Aids. He highlighted that SANAC is committed to working with instititions of higher learning such as Stellenbosch University to advance the active involvement of FBOs and faith leaders in health-related issues. An important outcome of the workshop was the establishment of an advisory committee that will coordinate public health programmes, research priorities, policy development and health system strengthening, with a specific focus on FBOs, MNCH and HIV.

But ultimately it is people like Simba who proactively take steps to broaden their perspective on society and all its interlinked dimensions that will help us reap the benefits of cross-disciplinary collaboration. In Simba’s words: “We need to strike a balance so that we can be holistic in our approach.” That is how the prioritisation of certain socioeconomic issues at the cost of other equally important issues can be prevented, enabling better outcomes for all.

The second day of the workshop included a candle-lighting ceremony where every attendee had the opportunity to light a candle in memory of people who have succumbed to Aids and in hope for everyone affected by HIV. Here Dr Jeannine Uwimana-Nicol from the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences takes a quiet moment to reflect.

The cross-disciplinary workshop inspired Simba Pondani, a PhD candidate from the Faculty of Theology, to enrol for the Postgraduate Diploma in HIV/Aids Management at the Africa Centre.

The speakers came from all over Africa, which supported informative and diverse discussions accounting for local and global contexts. 

Based on a study on a non-communicable diseases (NCD) programme conducted in Khayelitsha, Dr Lungiswa Tsolekile from the School of Public Health at UWC shared lessons learned from FBO engagements.

Prof Nico Koopman, deputy vice-chancellor of social impact transformation & personnel at the university, delivered a welcome note on day two, which zoomed in on HIV/Aids in commemoration of World Aids Day on
1 December.

Dr Munya Saruchera, director of the Africa Centre for HIV/Aids Management, shared details about their partnerships with FBOs and religious leaders and how the centre contributes to FBOs playing a role in HIV/Aids management and care.

Prof Peter Nyasulu , HOD of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS), Prof Nadine Bowers-du Toit of the Department of Practical Theology and Missiology at the Faculty of Theology, Dr Jeannine Uwimana-Nicol of FMHS, Dr Rogerio Phiri, chief director of operations at SANAC, and Prof Reginald Nel, dean of the Faculty of Theology.