AIDS 2008: women speak

The XVII International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2008 ) will be held in Mexico City from August 3-8, 2008. With over 21,000 people expected to attend, AIDS 2008 is the largest and most important HIV and AIDS conference of the year. A few days before the conference opened, UNAIDS released a new report that shows HIV infection rates are decreasing. Welcome news, but the situation is still grim for women and girls who remain disproportionately vulnerable to HIV infection. In a statement in response to the report, the World YWCA welcomed the call for governments to scale-up gender equality and women’s empowerment as part of their HIV and AIDS response.

The World YWCA has sent a delegation to AIDS 2008 to advocate for women and girls. Several of the women attending the conference will contribute to this blog. Keep checking back to read personal reflections to the events, debates and outcomes of AIDS 2008.

HIV in Australia: taking personal action

Susan Brennan, World YWCA President

Contributor: Susan Brennan

The power of the Nairobi 2007 Call to Action lies in its call to individual and collective action. We are all personally committed to challenge ourselves and others to respond to HIV and AIDS.It’s up to every one of us to listen, to learn, to advocate and to make change happen every single dayat home, at work and in our communities.

For me, this has meant forging a special friendship with an HIV positive teenager who challenges stereotypes about HIV on a daily basis. She has faced discrimination from schools and from doctors demonstrating how hidden HIV is in our community. She made me realise HIV is an issue for women in Australia, too. From her, I learnt to stop asking how someone “got HIV”. Now, whenever I speak about the priorities of the YWCA, I talk about the vulnerability of young women to HIV and the influence young women have in halting its spread.

I have supported the activities of the leading organisation for HIV-positive women in Australia by attending their picnics in public parks and a powerful photographic exhibition by positive women. The young men and women in my family now expect birthday gifts such as t-shirts, stationery and other literature raising awareness of HIV. My local YWCA partnered with a condom manufacturer to distribute a new brand of condoms innovatively marketed to women, which I distribute to my friends and familyeven to my fellow World YWCA Board members.

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Reducing HIV vulnerability through education for girls

Contributor: Constance Shumba

After signing the Nairobi 2007 Call to Action, I started a Girls’ Educational project in Koboko, Uganda. The project assists talented but disadvantaged young girls to go to secondary school by providing them with school fees and pocket money. As a young woman I believe strongly that one of the ways to reduce girls vulnerability to HIV is to provide them with opportunities for education.
Feminisation of HIV has created a need to challenge harmful cultural beliefs such as the idea that girls should not be educated. One of the girls in the project came from a home where the father did not believe in education. She now displays so much potential and has a bright future ahead of her. With access to education her life has changed but there are many girls in Africa living her past life.
In my professional life as a public health specialist I want to seek knowledge and ways of improving the health system, including improved financing, so that young women can have access to a wide range of sexual and reproductive health services. Change begins with every one of us and we need to address the socio-economic issues that enable disease and find ways to promote health holistically. We must be resilient in taking action until we get the social change we want.

Any response to HIV that recognises, respects and nurtures the potential of women and girls must be encouraged as part of protecting and promoting the human rights of women and girls. Since signing the Nairobi 2007 Call to Action, ensuring women and girls worldwide have access to education and economic security has become an important part of my life.

Source: Common Concern July 2008

Disclosing at home

Contributor: Alice Welbourn

After the Nairobi 2007 Call to Action was launched, I decided to raise awareness about HIV in my community. I hadn’t done this before because, like many HIV-positive activists, I find it hardest to disclose my HIV status in my own neighbourhood. There are over 20,000 positive women in the UK – but only around 20 of us ever speak out in public. Often we are protecting our children from stigma at school and elderly relatives from pain and worry over us, or we are fearful that we may lose a job. Sometimes we fear gossip and finger-pointing. Ironically, one of the greatest ways of encouraging people to become aware of how HIV might one day affect their own lives is lost when we remain secret, invisible and silent in our own communities.

So 2008 was going to be the year I took courage to challenge stereotypes by going public in my local town, Exeter, a thriving university city.

I tried to speak out at a film evening for students, but not one student turned up. But, I haven’t given up. The conveners of the film evening, also disappointed by the no-show, have resolved to try again – maybe to find ways of introducing the talks and films into the students’ curricula.

I am so lucky. I have a wonderful husband and daughter, both HIV-negative, who stand beside me and support my work and loving friends who are always there for me. But I still often find living positively a struggle—although I have none of the immense challenges with relationships and loss that so many positive women have.

I hope the Call to Action has urged people to find out what is happening in their community. Please reach out to any positive women around you who are trying, against so many odds, to make a difference to policy, practice and chronic funding crises. Call me an idealist, but I do believe that by standing together we, as women hand in hand, can change the world.

Source: Common Concern July 2008

We are all ‘living’ with HIV

Contributor: Sophie Dilmitis
I have been living with HIV for 14 years and every time I disclose there is a different reaction. People are stunned, some remain silent and stare in disbelief and some faces automatically show pity. As people living with HIV, every time we speak out, we continue to break the silence surrounding HIV and AIDS and this is important.

Having said this, the reality is that many women living with HIV choose not to disclose. Many times it is not safe, or disclosure could mean facing tiring processes that require special visas to be able to enter a country or even be denied entrance to places. Stigma and discrimination continue to drive this epidemic and we have to make changes on many different levels so human rights are respected and upheld at all costs.

The Nairobi 2007 Call to Action highlights that change of any sort happens first at a personal level and can only take place when we challenge our own ignorance and fears, change how we talk about HIV, and encourage others to do the same. HIV-positive people have to start investing in their own lives, so that they may live healthier, more productive and longer lives. This can only happen if we are supported.

It will take a united effort to overcome this epidemic—a community, country, continent and a globe standing together in commitment and strength. Work must begin on an individual level, by looking at our own lives and assessing what our beliefs are about sexuality, HIV and who is at risk. We can start by acknowledging that even if you are not infected, HIV is very much alive in everyday lives and we are all ‘living’ with it.

Source: Common Concern July 2008