Over the tragic 30-year arc of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, solid progress had been made in raising awareness about the disease and bringing down infection rates, but monies devoted to tackling it were drying up, the price of the drugs to treat it were skyrocketing, and rampant discrimination — particularly against gay men, and women living with HIV — had left at the margins of life-saving interventions communities critical to the fight, civil society representatives said at a Headquarters press conference today.
Against that backdrop, they called for an end to discrimination against all people living with the disease, as well as against at–risk populations, such as drug users, sex workers, migrants, people trapped in conflict zones, and men who had sex with men. They urged Governments to tap into the wellspring of energy, advocacy, and innovative thinking that could be harnessed by seriously involving in the response grass-roots organizations and people who were HIV-positive.
During a press conference held in connection with the General Assembly’s informal hearing with civil society on HIV/AIDS (see Press Release GA/11067), Ebony Johnson, of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) Non-Governmental Organization Programme Coordinating Board, noted that the thirtieth anniversary of the first reported AIDS cases also marked 10 years since the Assembly’s special session on HIV/AIDS had adopted an historic Declaration of Commitment on tackling the scourge.
As the Assembly prepared to review the status of the Commitment at a special meeting to be held from 8 to 10 June, she said that, as critical promises remained unmet, particularly regarding universal access to health care and treatment, there was an urgent need for Governments, to not only live up to their old pledges, but to craft “new, robust, and rights-based commitments informed by the voices and on-the-ground realities of civil society — by people who know their own epidemic, its impacts and the ways to curb its spread”.
Rampant gender inequality and discrimination demanded that new commitments take a human rights approach, Ms. Johnson continued, noting that there were numerous examples of rights violations that put women and girls disproportionately at risk of exposure to HIV and limited their ability to contribute effectively to the response. Regressive legal frameworks, harmful traditional practices, lack of access to education, and denial of comprehensive and reproductive health care were but a few examples, and she called for broad initiatives that effectively addressed such challenges. It was also important to lower the costs of antiretroviral drugs and bolster the fundamental right of all people to health.
“A woman living with HIV should not have to make a choice between purchasing medication and buying food,” she said, emphasizing that as one of the “hard realities” that should inform the negotiations when Member States gathered in New York two months from now. There was also a need to address prevention, including awareness raising and sexual and reproductive rights education, as part of a comprehensive AIDS response, because sadly, for every two people who started taking antiretroviral treatment, another five became newly infected with HIV.
“We cannot justify knowing there is an imminent danger and not providing comprehensive education,” she declared, stressing that people facing extreme vulnerability must have the information they needed to stay safe, stay alive, and make informed choices. Additionally, the international community could no longer afford “stockouts” of essential prevention tools, such as male and female condoms, that provided proven protection for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases. “Female condoms are the only female-controlled prevention tool available to women,” she said, especially since women were often unable to negotiate the use of condoms with male partners or were unable to refuse sex.
Ms. Johnson was joined at the press conference by Joel Nana, Executive Director of African Men for Sexual Health and Rights, who noted that men who had sex with men were also vulnerable, but many services and action plans failed to address their needs. Discrimination against those men, violent attacks against those that spoke out about their heath status or fought for the rights of others to do the same, forced them underground.
Moreover, many countries in the developing world, including nearly two thirds of the countries in Africa, criminalized same-sex practices, leaving men who had sex with men with scant access to social services and almost no voices at the community level speaking on their behalf. As an example of the “real fears” faced by some grass-roots organizations dealing with HIV-infected men, he cited one such group forced to hold its meetings on a bus that moved from location to location, and another whose members pretended to be a part of a football league and met on a playing field to discuss cases and plan strategies.
Many others operated underground because it was illegal in some countries to register a non-governmental organization that focused on the needs of men who had sex with men. “Marginalization, criminalization and the failure to put human rights at the centre [of the response] are the major obstacles to universal care and access,” he said, echoing Ms. Johnson. Indeed, it was crucial to include that community because failing to do so might undercut gains that had been made over the past 30 years. The right to health was a fundamental right for all people, regardless of sexual preference or HIV status.
Also present today was Luiz Loures, Director of the Executive Bureau of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, who agreed that while there had been many positive advances since 1981, there were nevertheless 6 million people now living with HIV; infections were still occurring; discrimination was still practiced; and many people still had no access to life-saving drugs.
While civil society had been pivotal in helping to raise awareness and for focusing the priorities of Governments going forward, much remained to be done, he said. The primary responsibility of the United Nations was not only to protect the most vulnerable, but also to provide a space for amplified debate among civil society and Member States to find common solutions.
At the start of the press conference, Jean-Victor Nkolo, Spokesperson for the President of the General Assembly read a brief statement on that official’s behalf. He said that hundreds of civil society representatives had gathered at the Assembly today to engage Member States and further the exchange of knowledge and ideas on HIV/AIDS. By the time world leaders convened in New York in June to adopt a new declaration, more people, and not fewer, would be living with HIV. “So, the fight against complacency begins today,” he said, emphasizing that the civil society hearing provided an exceptional opportunity to engage grass-roots organizations and people living with, and affected by, HIV.