International AIDS Conference: Too much to do in too little time
In the last few days, the weather has gone from scorching hot to non-stop rain, to humid and lukewarm. The air-conditioning in many of the meeting rooms seems to have only one setting – very high and frosty. My body is in a state of confusion and my brain is fast approaching its limit in terms of information intake. Yet I have another week to go and so have to soldier on….
Last Friday and Saturday I attended the Interfaith Conference organised by the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance (EAA) at Howard University. One salient piece of information I overheard in the corridors of this conference was that Howard University had to be convinced to host the conference. Apparently they thought it would be controversial to do so, however, I was unclear on whether the controversial bit was the interfaith or the HIV aspect!
The theme of the Interfaith Conference was Taking Action for Health, Dignity and Justice, and reflecting on the work of faith-based organisations through the three different lenses. Unlike previous years, this conference was two days instead of just one, with many more participants attending than usual.
In the first plenary session, Dr. Regina M. Benjamin, the Surgeon General of the United States shared how her journey in HIV started when she lost her only sibling to the virus. She went on to tell us how one in every five people living with HIV in the US does not realise that they are HIV positive and how more needs to be done to change this state of affairs.
We also heard from Dr. Panessa Seele, who I am told is possibly one of the most influential people among African Americans because of her contacts. She pleaded with participants at the conference not to forget ‘Mother Africa’s’ children living with HIV in the US because, as she put it, HIV rates in some neighbourhoods could easily compare to those in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Then Rabbi David Saperstein, Director & Counsel of the Religious Action Centre of Reform Judaism stepped up. He reminded the interfaith community that it would be a failure of moral vision and political will to remain silent about HIV, and reiterated the importance of preserving human life. Maria Zawenge, a 23-year-old Zimbabwean woman who was born with HIV and who now works with YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association), spoke beautifully about the myriad of difficulties that living with HIV brings, but how these were somewhat tempered by the beauty and relief of having a child born without HIV. I found myself choking back tears.
There were many more testimonies from speakers from all over the world, reflecting on why it was important to return dignity to all people, no matter what race or religion they are. Some of the examples given of how HIV positive people are very often denied their dignity included the criminalisation of HIV and sexuality, and consistent lack of access to even the most basic treatment to allow them to led fulfilling lives. Going forward, it is vital to make sure that everyone is able to access decent healthcare and to continue working towards a sustained intervention that will eradicate HIV in our lifetime. Access to HIV treatment is a basic human right, it was stressed.
On Sunday evening many people flocked to the Convention Centre in DC to hear several speakers set the context of the next five days of the conference. We had already heard a few days before that, even though President Obama was scheduled to speak, he was no longer going to do so – the reasons for his absence were unclear.
However, what is quickly becoming clear through some of the meetings I have attended so far, is how much the US has suffered because of not hosting the International AIDS Conferences over the last 22 years. For instance, the US seems to be behind on the issue of addressing HIV in places of worship, as well as having networks of religious leaders who are informed (or HIV- friendly) to reach communities and make sure that people access HIV testing. Europe and Africa seem to be much further ahead.
Today the main sessions of the conferences begin, but so will the rallies, and the official opening of the global village. It will get a little crazy but it’s all about saving lives, and as many as humanly possible in this lifetime.Tagged in: AIDS, Dr. Regina M. Benjamin, health, HIV, Interfaith Conference, International AIDS Conference, Rabbi David Saperstein, YWCA
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