As 2012 was ending, many of us, working for most-at-risk communities in the AIDS community were reflecting on the year, and whether the last AIDS conference in Washington, DC had any impact. It was a very eventful year in so many respects. From human rights controversies to new breakthroughs in prevention science, and off course all the talk about “Turning the tide” and the “AIDS Free generation”. We witnessed last year many policy and political ‘wins’ for the groups we work for. Groups who despite their higher vulnerability to HIV, suffer neglect in country AIDS responses. Namely, injecting drug users, men who have sex with men and sex workers. Leaders and advocates representing these groups were very visible and were the subject of policy debates during the Washington conference.
Among the many ‘wins’ at the global level, the 2012 annual UNAIDS report showed encouraging signs of decreasing new infections in all regions. We saw the first report by the World Bank on HIV epidemics among sex workers and the launch of the report of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law. In Africa, we even saw the governments of Kenya, Ghana and South Africa publishing national strategies to accelerate the fight against HIV and sexually transmitted infections among the three most-at-risk groups.
Off course, there were also major set backs and backlash– not least for the drug users and the sex workers – who faced tremendous barriers and blanket bans from US authorities to attend the AIDS conference. This happened despite the official removal of the US entry ban for people living with the virus in 2010. In fact many colleagues, especially those working on AIDS with sex workers chose to go to the parallel Kolkata Freedom festival in India.
A Ukrainian woman living with HIV who was refused entry addressed the conference through a video. Her words were very symbolic and a good reflection on the difficulty that the US and many countries have with certain realties. She said “if most affected and at-risk communities cannot attend the Washington conference, so who is the conference for?…”
Nigeria, the country with the third largest number of people living with HIV in the World also made headlines at the conference; both positive and negative. At the opening of the conference, Florence, a Nigerian mother talked about her life with HIV, with her pretty thirteen year old HIV-free daughter standing beside her. With the standing ovation they received, most agreed that it takes courage to speak openly to the World about living with the virus. Prior to this event, Florence has been in and out of Nigeria and spoke at several events about rising above stigma and the medical revolution that anti-retroviral therapy has created for African women.
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