Involving religious leaders in modeling behavior toward stigmatized populations

The Sangha Metta project trains Buddhist monks, nuns and novices to provide practical and spiritual assistance to people with HIV/AIDS and to fight the myths, misconceptions and stigma surrounding the disease. The program now exists in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Bhutan, Vietnam, China and Mongolia and receives aid from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), AusAID, the Open Society Institute and the Burma Project.

While HIV/AIDS has become epidemic in the Asia Pacific region a lack of understanding about the disease’s trans­mission persists, as does discrimination against those infected.

Centered on the moral and religious teachings of Buddhism, the Sangha Metta project was started in 1997 by monks in Thailand and has been a source of inspiration, training and technical assistance for Buddhist mobiliza­tion around AIDS. Sangha Metta arranges seminars, workshops and visits to AIDS hospices for Buddhist leaders, as well as leaders of other religions. In three to five day trainings, participants learn about prevention education, awareness-raising, social management skills and tools to encourage tolerance and compassion. Together they assess the problems in their communities and possible steps for combating them.

The Buddhist leaders then model behavior towards affected community members, eating, for example, food prepared and offered by people with HIV/AIDS. This simple, symbolic act has a powerful impact on community members by confronting their fears of transmission. The monks also guide meditation for people with HIV/AIDS, visit them in their homes, educate young people about the disease and care for children orphaned by it.


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What we can learn from this tactic: 

In many communities religious leaders hold positions of great respect and influence; people look to them for cues on how to behave and what moral standards to uphold. Here, Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns fight the stigma of HIV/AIDS by modeling behavior toward sufferers who might otherwise be entirely ostracized.

The monks and nuns working with Sangha Metta are helping to convince members of their communities to pro­mote and respect human rights by modeling behavior — acceptance and tolerance for a group of people who had traditionally been outcasts. Temples in Asia are the spiritual heart of the villages and villagers see monks and nuns as respected teachers, confidants and examples of the purist way to live a Buddhist life. People are accustomed to seeing them as models for behavior. While it may not be as explicit in other religions or cultures, many people look to their religious leaders for guidance on how they should act. These leaders have the power to involve new people in promoting human rights.

Sangha Metta has now crossed religious barriers and is conducting workshops and trainings for leaders of the Christian, Hindu and Islamic faiths as well.