AIDS does not only travel with truckers along African highways; it flies business class with men in dark suits, crawls into marriages and lurks in playgrounds. It smiles at you every day at work and, disproportionately, affects African women and girls because of gender inequalities.
With these words activist Deborah Williams, from Tobago, opened the one-day Forum for Women Living with HIV and AIDS in Nairobi, Kenya, on Wednesday - the largest gathering ever of HIV-positive women from all corners of the world - convened by the International Community of Women Living with HIV and AIDS, and the World Young Women's Christian Association.
"For once, HIV-positive women are inside the tent, not outside," said Mary Robinson, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and a previous president of Ireland, in her keynote speech.
The main questions asked by the hundreds of HIV positive women at the forum were: if women matter, where is the leadership, and where is the money?
According to executive director of UNAIDS Peter Piot, an anticipated US$10 billion is being spent globally on AIDS this year, so the vexing questions were not about amounts, but "about accountability, where the money goes, and why is it so difficult for women and grassroots groups to access these resources?"
Sisonke Msimang, coordinator of HIV/AIDS programmes at the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, a Johannesburg-based philanthropic foundation, believes the time has come to underpin policies and declarations with resources.
"We know what the problem is. All over the world, good though scattered research, and good though small-scale projects point the way," she said. "The need now is for resources to scale up, to turn words into action."
Summing up the thinking, Canadian Dorien Taylor said: "We want seats at the table, more money and projects tailored to HIV-positive women."
|We want seats at the table, more money and projects tailored to HIV-positive women.|
Twenty-five years into the global HIV/AIDS epidemic, a new generation of HIV-positive activists emerged at the forum: teenagers who have never lived in a world without AIDS, or in a body without the virus.
The circumstances of their lives may be vastly different from the previous generation of AIDS activists, but their experiences are not. Martha Judith Naigwe, 22, from Uganda, and Stephanie, a 15-year-old Australian, both grew up "in the cold, hushed world of AIDS", as Stephanie put it, denied a normal childhood because of discrimination.
Injecting drug users, who have even been stigmatised by other HIV-positive people, found an eloquent advocate in Irina Borushek, a Ukrainian economist who became a heroin addict, but quit the drug in 1996 and was diagnosed HIV positive in 1999.
Borushek told IRIN/PlusNews it had been easier to speak in public about being an HIV-infected woman than about being a former drug addict. "I was glad when the voices of HIV-positive women drug users were heard for the first time at the United Nations in 2005," she said. "They are triply stigmatised."
Through her leadership of the Ukrainian Network of People Living with HIV, Borushek pushed her government to provide antiretroviral treatment to 4,000 people and methadone to 500 recovering addicts in 2006.
As is usual in meetings of HIV-positive women, stories were told and personal experiences shared. "Talking is a very important step for women who have been marginalised, discriminated against and silent," said Taylor.
As hundreds of women in turbans, boubous, kangas, ponchos and jeans sang and danced at the closing ceremony, their common experiences of living with HIV were much stronger than their differences.
The forum preceded the first International Summit of Women and AIDS, a conference from 5 to 7 July, in Nairobi, Kenya, to be attended by 1,800 participants from 95 countries.
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