The conference is wrapping up, and through the exhaustion I ask myself is this really worthy? The big circus of the International AIDS Conference…? With all the millions that it costs: does is ta really make a difference to the 34 millions of people with HIV all over the world? Or to those just a few blocks away from the conference, that still do not have access to treatment?
The International AIDS Conference is a time of slogans and rhetoric: I have heard over and over again: WE CAN END AIDS! I ask myself… What does this really mean? All the enthusiasm seems to be focused on the fact that now we know that treatment can prevent HIV: so many believe we can have a medical shortcut to the end of the epidemic. We even have hope for a cure. However, I know that in spite of the fact that there has been a lot of effort put in having children born HIV free, still millions are born with HIV and will have to grow up in a world were HIV is still a reality. Even if children are born HIV free, so many young people, and especially adolescent girls still become HIV positive, not to talk of all the other groups that are still acquiring HIV at a scary rate, like people who use drugs in Russia.
I feel that the role of this aggressive and negative language doesn’t sustain us in creating a safe and respectful world for the million of us who will continue be living with HIV. We have to find ways to increase our health, wellbeing, access to rights and solidarity. I am fed up of hearing: we must end AIDS, we must end stigma and discrimination. I want to spell out what will replace it! As women living with HIV we had a letter published in the special edition of the IJAS for the conference on the importance of language in creating a world that upholds our rights…But is anybody listening?
Obviously being here has been a great opportunity for me. I have met so many inspiring people. I did a fantastic skill building workshop on how to use the social media for advocacy. At the workshop there were many women who regularly blog for A Girl Like Me, a kind of portal for women living with HIV in the US to share their stories. The fabulous Maria Meja co-facilitated the session with me. On the panel I also met Mark King, the man behind My Fabulous Disease, a video blog. Mark has covered the conference in a fun and fabulous way! Who knows one day soon I may start video blogging!
I have also been blown away by the advocacy efforts of so many of my colleagues especially the speech of Debbie McMilan ( about one hour into the recording) an openly HIV positive transgender woman from Washington DC who spoke of her past life of drugs, prostitution, incarceration with incredible power and dignity. She also told us of her healing and the role of being accepted 100% for who she is (don’t we all need that?) and how the support of her peers through the group Transgender Health Empowerment (THE) turned her life around. It is dramatic and upsetting that the organization has now lost funding.
Also I need to mention the amazing Linda Scruggs, another beautiful Afro-American woman who spoke powerfully on the rights of women living with HIV at the plenary on Wednesday , please watch her! She is also about 60 minutes into the recording.
Another important moment for me at the conference was the meeting women’s networks organized with Michelle Sidibe, the Executive Director of UNAIDS, to ensure our meaningful involvement is sustained in the present times of economic crisis. We requested Michelle to help us to keep a gender focus in the response to HIV and to be consulted in all the campaigns that UNAIDS does on women. We demanded to be involved at country level in the monitoring of the Global Plan, we expressed our concerns that we need funding streams that are easily accessible for our grassroots networks. Michelle was very warm to our requests and has made verbal commitments on which we will follow up. I must say that Michelle Sidibe is an extremely friendly person and knew many of us by first names, he listened and laughed with us, but also took us very seriously…Well Michelle…if you are reading this (you never know…), we are expecting ACTION!