By Marta Guimaraes
December 4th marked the official opening of the 16th International Conference on AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections in Africa (ICASA 2011) in Addis Ababa Ethiopia. The five-day conference under the theme ‘Own, Scale-up and Sustain’ expects to actively engage participants through high-level plenary sessions, satellite sessions, skill building sessions, poster exhibition and various side events. The World YWCA is participating in ICASA with a delegation of 15 women, 12 of whom are young women from eight YWCA African associations accompanied by Mandy Nogarede and Hendrica Okondo from the World YWCA Office and the General Secretary of YWCA of Ethiopia Ms. Saba Haile.
Reflecting on her first few days at ICASA, Marta of YWCA of Angola shares her experience:
It was amazing to see so many young African women excited and passionate about pushing for change at the government level. I have participated in the Pre-ICASA training held by the World YWCA focusing on leadership, advocacy and human rights based approaches for integrating Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) and HIV. In the second part of the training we reviewed our progress in implementing SRHR projects and shared our best practice in reaching marginalised young women. We then went on to evaluate strategies developed to support young women living with HIV to be champions advocating for inclusive sensitive and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services. This was an interesting session with lots of concerns and topics being discussed.
The Abuja declaration has been discussed a lot, but most African countries have not met the goal of 15% of budget allocated to health care. However, setting these targets and having governments make large, public commitments to respond HIV and AIDS can have a large impact and needs to continue. What we need now are for our leaders to recommit to the promises made at Abuja. In the plenary session ‘Keeping the Promise Monitoring and Evaluation of HIV Programs’, the importance of strong leadership at all levels from the lowest to the highest is a key factor in response to HIV and AIDS. Leaders must be accountable, responsible, and committed. It is only when leaders discuss topics like HIV and AIDS and put them on their agenda that it will be something that all people discuss and want to address. Through this plenary I learnt about the objective of eliminating Mother-to-child-transmission (MTCT) by 2015 and I was very impressed with this goal and feel optimistic about realising it. I had no idea that public health experts had said that large-scale Anti-Retroviral Therapy (ART) treatment was an impossibility in Africa. It’s great to know they were wrong, both because it means thousands of lives have been saved and because it means we don’t always have to listen to pessimistic voices.
During the plenary there was a lot of discussion about the funding challenges ahead and how Africa will deal with funding HIV programs and interventions as a lot of funding comes from external sources which are unreliable in this global economic crisis. Therefore, this presents a pressing problem for Africa thus we need to find innovative, effective ways to continue to increase domestic funding for HIV prevention and treatment because it is increasingly difficult to access external funding. I think African governments and world leaders’ alike need to back HIV and AIDS prevention initiatives however there is a lot of discrimination and stigma surrounding the issue. His Holiness the Abune Paulos I, Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, stressed during the dialogue the importance and responsibility of religious leaders to talk about HIV and AIDS in order to breakdown the stereotypes and discrimination people face. One young woman who is HIV positive gave a testimony describing how she had suffered much stigma and discrimination at the hands of those she loved most and her local community. Her own mother locked her in the room and wouldn’t touch her. Even her local church would not allow her to enter as they were afraid she would spread HIV. This young woman’s experience really showed us how horrible it is to suffer stigma and how negatively it can impact an individual’s life. Through out the day it became more and more evident that if we want to change the situation for women, we must pool our resources and have a large, unified effort. Only by working together will we make a difference. I am very much looking forward to participating in the Women’s Networking Zone convened by ATHENA Network and the National Network of Positive Women Ethiopians, in collaboration with Southern African AIDS Trust (SAT), and the Global Coalition of Women and AIDS (GCWA).