Julian Hows, of the Global Network of People Living with HIV (GNP+), focuses on the importance of enabling what he views as the most critical part of the HIV response: communities and organizations of people living with HIV.
Good afternoon. My name is Julian Hows and I thank you for allowing me to speak on the issue of enabling environments – but I want to shift the emphasis slightly and I would like to start off with a small history lesson, because I fear that one thing we learn from history is that we sometimes do not learn from history.
Nearly 30 years ago I was part of a community telephone helpline in the UK, called London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard. It operated 24 hours a day from a small room above a bookshop in London. Since the 70’s it had provided advice, support, a friendly voice for all those coming to terms with their sexuality, wanting to know more, or just wanting someone to talk to. From 1982 /3 that included information on what we now call HIV, but then knew very little about, and was affecting as it still does, the gay community most cruelly. We were the first UK response to HIV, we were not government funded, and we had no staff. In 1985 the UK government made its first major response to HIV by delivering 12 million leaflets about HIV (one to every household in the country) and it included the telephone number of that little community helpline number on the leaflet. However they did it without asking the helpline first, or offering them us resources to deal with the response.
After the leaflet was delivered to every household in the country that little Gay and Lesbian helpline took 295,000 calls in the next year alone…
Hold on to that history lesson for a moment.
Nearly 30 years later (25 of them living with HIV) I work at the Global Network of People Living with HIV.
As a global response, and I include many of the organisations and governments in this room, we have got better at supporting communities and recognising that in many respects they are the experts in knowing what affects them most and what, especially in a resource constrained environment, we should concentrate upon. To give two examples:
I thank heartily the governments here such as those from the Philippines, Mexico Ethiopia, Kenya, Germany, the UK, Poland, and others who have supported national PLHIV networks as they have implemented the People Living with HIV Stigma Index – and have taken note of their findings about the drivers and determinants of PLHIV related Stigma and are working in partnership with them (or at least listening to them) as they make recommendations about what might be done to counter such stigma them via programmatic and policy responses.
I also thank UNAIDS who supported the first community devised and driven responses and data gathering about the criminalisation of HIV transmission – first carried out systematically in 2003 by GNP+ across Europe and since then Globally. Others from the UN family (WHO, ILO, UNFPA, UNDP and others) who have responded to concerns first raised by communities of PLHIV by supporting their work.
For it is by supporting such work that we recognise that it is people living with HIV who at the forefront of what environments need to be researched, explored, from a PLHIV led perspective, to provide the data and evidence of impact so that it can be countered.
Indeed it has always been the work of communities and organisations of PLHIV, whether they are gay or MSM, sex workers, migrants, people who use drugs – or organised purely on the basis of geography, who have provided the cutting edge responses and most effective responses – for this virus if nothing else is about our lives and our deaths so we have the most to gain and lose.
But what does all this has to do with enabling environment you may ask.
Well enabling environments is all well and good and need to be applauded, but however enabled the environment is you need enabled people to take advantage of them.
It is communities and organisations people living with HIV who are best placed to know the extent of knowledge of rights amongst PLHIV – and best placed to help them and support them; whether this be in the labour market, the healthcare system, in in having the courage to go in front of the courts.
It is also organisations of people living with HIV who are best placed to do the work that is sometimes even more useful; how to avoid coming into conflict with laws where there is not an enabled environment, or how to successfully ignore an unjust law – and still feel good about oneself despite of the law and the way one is being treated.
So to finish back at the history lesson – that little helpline – after nearly burning out the volunteers, the local telephone exchange, continued for several years to take 2 to 3 hundred thousand calls a year – and it eventually got money from the government to do its work, support its volunteers, and indeed it was the model on which much of the UK response was based and gave birth to many organisations and further initiatives in the UK and internationally.
So as we face a credit crunch over the next few years less us not forget this lesson – that governments do and should create the enabling environments and change punitive laws and practice (and need our support and encouragement to do so) but ultimately it is about People and our most crucial investment must be in the community organisations that create the enabled people – for from that all else will flow.