A Report From the Int’l AIDS Conference: A Shared Agenda for Women


This report comes from the International AIDS Conference, taking place July 19th through 23rd in Vienna, Austria. 

While women’s needs as sex workers and drug users are receiving much-needed attention in the official program of the XVIII International AIDS Conference in Vienna, Austria, it is in side events that women’s broader needs were discussed and debated in lively, participatory sessions during the first two days of the meeting. A few men attended the sessions mentioned below as well – listening with interest, concentration and respect, and mainly expressing their encouragement for what the women were undertaking when specifically invited to contribute by moderators.

During a session on women and girls organized by Women ARISE! (an international coalition of NGOs and networks), audience members chose issues of women’s rights they wished to see in focus during the conference week. The responses reflected a diversity of concerns: the situation of lesbians vis-à-vis the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the visibility of HIV-positive women from Eastern and Central Europe, availability of female condoms worldwide, the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of women – especially young women and women living with HIV, the use of law to promote and protect women’s rights, policies and programs for comprehensive education on sexuality and SRHR, and the need to ensure sufficient funding to enable women’s voices to be taken more seriously.

A discussion on whether human rights matter to young women was led by an inter-generational female panel with an audience mainly comprising women in their mid-twenties and thirties (an audience survey also showed one woman each in her sixties, seventies and eighties participating).

Young women emphasized that we should stop talking about “youth participation” in terms of “our future leaders,” since young people already have experiences, knowledge and perspectives that they want to be taken seriously now. They also don’t want to be consulted solely regarding youth issues but to contribute to work on broader issues such as gender norms, sexuality and pleasure, and reproductive choice.

A tribute by a young man from Bosnia to his mother, a widow who raised him and fought for rights her whole life, reminded those present that older and younger women may share situations requiring different responses. For example, young widows may receive fewer or even no entitlements compared to women widowed after many years in a family; while younger and older women may both be expected to refrain from sex by gender-based norms, at least the younger women’s interest in pleasure will be understood, whereas the idea of older women enjoying sex is often considered inappropriate or even inconceivable.

In a session on rights and justice for women, Alice Welbourn of the Salamander Trust described how the Judeo-Christian culture in the United Kingdom has promoted “the illusion of inclusion” of women in the arenas of religion, the law and medical care. The subtle – and also much more explicit – absence of women or portrayals of them only in subordinate roles (i.e., women as nurses rather than doctors) is not only significant for British women, however, as Welbourn pointed out that 72 percent of women living with HIV today are citizens of Commonwealth countries permeated by this cultural legacy of their former colonizers.

Laura Ferguson of Harvard University’s International Program on Health and Human Rights noted that different kinds of evidence are needed for different purposes. Whereas quantitative data may be most appropriate (and in demand) for epidemiological studies and research on drug effectiveness, qualitative data of various kinds may be needed for advocacy purposes or to document violations of human rights with regard to health care or women’s life experiences. The panelists agreed that no data are truly neutral but always colored by the theoretical/philosophical underpinnings of the research questions.

To ensure that women’s concerns are addressed in a meaningful and useful way for women themselves, panelists suggested that key elements for evidence collection should include:  ensuring that qualitative research asks very specific questions that women consider relevant and rigorously describes the methodologies used; combining social science research with clinical studies; and accepting the validity and value of grey literature and more anecdotal data. To this, I would add that it is important for initial research findings to be shared with respondents – or at least women from the same community – to gain their insights and perspectives so that these are considered in the data analysis before presentation to the wider scientific and policymaking community.

The Huairou Commission spearheaded a discussion that aimed to explore how women’s diversities could create a unified women’s movement in responding to HIV/AIDS. Though the hope was that participants would represent multiple groups, including sex workers, LGBTI activists, feminists, grassroots women, and drug users, the ultimate debate focused on how to bridge gaps between women working at the national and international levels (“professionals”) and women whose work is centered in local communities (“grassroots women”). Participants first considered whether any terminology could encompass the shared concerns of professionals and grassroots women, but could reach no consensus on this.

Some useful suggestions nevertheless emerged:

1) recognize that all women have multiple identities and roles, with some being perhaps more dominant than others;

2) actively create opportunities and spaces for grassroots women to name and claim their own agendas;

3) focus not only high-level women’s participation (e.g., advocating for women parliamentarians in connection with MDG 3,but promote women’s leadership at the community level (town councils; heading up parent-teacher, farming and credit associations, etc.); and

4) create more opportunities for women working at different levels to develop complementary activities and work.

The participants agreed that such discussions among representatives of “professionals” and “grassroots women” should be promoted both nationally and internationally, with a pre-conference for women before the Washington AIDS Conference being a desirable goal.

Finally, a session entitled “We hear the thunder but we see no rain” examined the situation of funding for women’s rights work. There was agreement that the funds available are pitifully and unacceptably low and that more must be done to advocate for and track governmental accountability in this regard. There was also agreement that women’s organizations need more funds and capacity-building to even be able to carry out such advocacy and accountability work. However, opinions differed as to whether it would be feasible or even desirable to create more indicators on gender equality. In my view, it would be useful if we did do more to measure progress towards gender equality, including promotion of gender equality within our own organizations and networks.

This session’s call for a plenary presentation on the topic of funding for women’s rights at the next AIDS Conference was heartily endorsed by those present. Indeed, a point on which women agreed in all these early sessions is that women’s issues certainly need to be a much larger part of the official program of the next International AIDS Conference to be held in Washington, DC (22-27 July 2012). As one woman noted, we must ensure that women are not pushed to the edges – including the edges of the conference (i.e., early morning, evening and satellite/side event sessions).

What may determine whether this happens is the degree to which we take to heart some of the early recommendations from these first two days: pursue a more inter-generational approach to examining and addressing women’s situations, needs and desires; advocate more effectively for the importance of qualitative data to support interventions that truly respond to women’s concerns and promote fulfillment of their rights; and increase efforts to have more women’s voices heard, both by creating spaces for women to exercise their leadership effectively at the grassroots, national and international levels and by vigorously promoting and making visible how women’s work and advocacy at the grassroots, national and international levels can be complementary and mutually reinforcing.

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