Where are the Women at the International AIDS Conference?

The list of plenary speakers for the 2012 International AIDS Conference was just released and something’s missing: women. How is this possible?! Now in its 19th year of existence, the International AIDS Conference is the world’s largest gathering to address HIV and AIDS. More than 20,000 participants are expected in Washington, D.C. this July to attend the 2012 conference.

Women are among the most marginalized in society, so to see a list of speakers that does not include an HIV-positive woman is of great concern. In November 2011, I visited one of AJWS’s partners in Zimbabwe called Southern Africa HIV and AIDS Information Dissemination Service (SAfAIDS). SAfAIDS promotes effective and ethical development responses to the epidemic. Mary Sandasi, former executive director, told me story after story about how women continue to be stigmatized in sub-Saharan Africa particularly those living with HIV and AIDS. Women are denied access to care and treatment; infected people are shunned by their family and peers, including the wider community; and in worst cases, women are sent away by their male partners after being accused of bringing HIV to their home. Furthermore, there are other populations that continue to face deep stigma and discrimination too such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people; sex workers and adolescent girls.

How can we expect marginalized populations to stand up and be counted when no one is representing their views at such an important conference? As expected, this unequal participation on the plenary has sparked outrage from activists around the world, including the Global Coalition on Women and AIDS (GCWA), a worldwide alliance organization that has written a letter to the chairs of the conference coordinating committee expressing its disappointment about the exclusion of women living with HIV from the plenary table. GCWA said, “The lack of representation risks undermining the spirit and the power of the conference and its theme of Turning the Tide Together.”

I’m glad that AJWS is taking a step to correct this imbalance by supporting over 15 grantees that represent women, LGBTI people and adolescent girls to attend the conference and share their own experiences. These grantees include:

  • The Women AIDS Support Network, a community-based organization in Zimbabwe that addresses women’s issues in the area of HIV/AIDS through advocacy, support and networking;
  • Sexual Rights Center that works to advance the sexual rights of marginalized women, children and men and create a sexual rights culture in Zimbabwe;
  • The Kisumu Medical Education Trust (KMET) supporting adolescent sexuality and reproductive health and AIDS prevention in Kenya.

HIV and AIDS cuts across all populations, and women, LGBTI people and adolescent girls should not be excluded from key decision-making processes. We need to provide a comprehensive approach to HIV and AIDS if we are going to use this year’s AIDS Conference to move our efforts forward.  Stay tuned for more updates on AJWS’s participation at the AIDS Conference by checking back here.

Terry Mukuka is AJWS’s Program Officer for Africa.