NAIROBI, Kenya (RNS) — On Valentine’s Day, some Kenyan pastors handed out red roses as a sign of love to HIV-positive youth suffering stigma and discrimination.
The gesture was meant as a way to reach out to youth, many of whom feel rejected by the churches.
“We came to show the youth that we care and support them,” said Rev. Geoffrey Wanjala Munialo, a pastor with Vineyard Church, a Pentecostal congregation in Nairobi.
“We’ve also been teaching them the right perspective of love,” he added. “The right perspective helps people care and eliminate stigma and discrimination in HIV.”
Widespread stigma prevents many youth living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, from coming forward and acknowledging their condition.
“Most parents prefer the status of their children remain unknown,” said Munialo. “They fear guilt by association.”
Mary Mutua, who is HIV-positive, said she blames the church for not giving greater priority to people like her.
“The church does not want to talk about it,” she said, because it means acknowledging that young people contract the virus through sexual intercourse.
“Many are comfortable supporting those who got it at birth because they feel it’s less sinful,” she added.
AIDS is the No. 1 cause of death among adolescents in Africa, according to a UNICEF study that showed the number of teenagers dying from AIDS has tripled since 2000, while the number of new infections in other age groups has slowed.
Girls subject to sexual violence, forced marriages and trafficking, and gay and bisexual boys who use drugs are especially vulnerable.
Rev. James Muhia, the parish minister at the Presbyterian Church of East Africa in Ruiru near Nairobi, acknowledges that churches have not always done the right thing by young people.
“Forgiveness will open the doors for the church to accept and embrace them,” Muhia said, referring to young people.
Jane Ng’ang’a, the program officer for the International Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV-Kenya, urged churches to work to become safe places for the youth and others.
“There are some wounded youth who have come to church,” said Ng’ang’a, “but they do not feel safe enough to share their condition.”