Jennifer Kidwell is the Communications Assistant for the International Women's Health Coaltion.
Thanks to Bill Gates, microbicides may soon become a household word. At the International AIDS Conference (IAC) last week, calls for “women’s rights” and “gender equality” were issued not just by the Gates, but also Stephen Lewis, Bill Clinton, and others. Even a few women made the news.
The Toronto meeting was my first IAC. I’d expected overwhelming chaos, but I’d underestimated the richness of the dialogue taking place. For me, the most powerful lessons actually emerged not from the major newsmakers, but other channels behind the scenes.
First, we can’t forget the basics. Given the buzz about new research on microbicides, male circumcision, and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), we stand to lose sight of the tools we already have at our disposal. At “In Her Own Words,” an event organized by the International Women’s Health Coalition, International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS, and Association for Women’s Rights in Development, I listened to the most honest and compelling conversation about the female condom I’ve ever heard. All the panelists, from different parts of the world, agreed that it was a critical prevention option for women. Judith Auerbach of the Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR), questioned why we are much harder on the female condom than the male condom. Another panelist, Lynde Francis of the Centre in Zimbabwe, described a successful campaign to increase access there which found high demand for the method among women. Unfortunately, the fact that female condoms are not subsidized or accessible to the same extent as male condoms represents a major obstacle. As Lynde noted, there are creative ways to address other challenges: “Even if it is squeaky, I always tell my clients [at my NGO] to put loud music on when you make love.”
Second—and related—addressing HIV/AIDS requires frank, sometimes difficult conversations about sex. Unfortunately, these rarely make the news. I was truly and pleasantly surprised by how many discussions I heard about sexual pleasure as an HIV/AIDS prevention and care strategy; about sex workers’ health needs and rights; and about the sexual and reproductive rights of women both before and after they are infected with HIV/AIDS. For example, at “In Her Own Words,” when Sophie Dilmitis of Zimbabwe noted that “young women need to be able to access and enjoy their sexual and reproductive health and rights,” Lynde Francis added, “So do old women.”
Third, diverse groups found new ways to work together across formerly uncomfortable differences. As Meena Seshu, Founder and Director of the organization SANGRAM in India, and a formidable advocate for the health and rights of sex workers, stated, “Sex workers have to struggle to be considered women and human. And I think we are making progress. This week, everyone is looking for me on the sex worker’s panels. But at this conference, for the first time, here I am on the women’s panels.”
At the next conference, policymakers must consider the complicated, multidimensional, and real ways in which HIV/AIDS impacts the lives of women and girls. In other words, HIV/AIDS leaders must be called upon to consider women’s realities whenever they consider HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and care—not just when they are reminded to do so. Given the number of advocates committed to women’s health and rights that at this meeting, I doubt there will be any shortage of such reminders. Let’s keep them coming.