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Addis Ababa: Strong, Proud and Beautiful: Launching a Dialogue for African Action

07 Dec, 2011
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By: GCWA
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West and Central Africa: a 12-year-old girl acquires HIV through a blood transfusion. Her parents isolate her inside the house, pushing food to her on a stick. A decade later she is denied admission to university on the basis of her HIV status. In this young woman’s words: “I won’t sleep until young women living with HIV are given a voice and a platform to speak.”
 
Southern and East Africa: a girl child is raped and acquires HIV. In her teens she develops a fistula. Doctors tell her it’s normal for a young woman living with HIV. A decade later, she learns that it can be treated and will go away regardless of her HIV status. In this young woman’s words: “These are things that are hurting us as women living with HIV. We are being denied our rights.”
 
West and Central Africa: a woman gives birth with no access to information or health services. She breastfeeds her baby for seven months, not understanding why she and the child are constantly sick. Her daughter dies just shy of her first birthday. In this young woman’s words: “At grassroots level it remains a challenge to access information about HIV and to access services.”
 
These stories echo the priority issues identified through the Virtual Consultation conducted earlier this year by the Global Coalition on Women and AIDS, in partnership with ATHENA Network. Women and girls in all our diversity need and have a right to access comprehensive, inclusive, non-judgemental information and services beyond the peri-natal setting; to live in health and dignity free of stigma and discrimination, sexual and gender-based violence, and harmful traditional practices; to have gender equitable access to economic opportunities, political representation, and sexual and reproductive autonomy; to have access to comprehensive sexuality education; and to enjoy meaningful participation and leadership in all decision making that affects our lives.
 
Globally, women and girls, especially those of us living with HIV, and those of us who are marginalised on the basis of our age, (dis)ability, educational attainment, sexual orientation, profession, or marital status – among many other factors – continue to struggle to make our voices heard. The virtual consultation aimed to provide a space for women and girls to give voice to their priorities, and create a new means for women to influence global policy agendas. It raised a shared voice, through the launch of the In Women’s Words: Action Agenda on the eve of the High Level Meeting on HIV and AIDS in June 2011. For the 2011 ICASA conference, the Southern African AIDS Trust supported the development of a Dialogue for African Action, drawn from the same process.
 
"The Global Coalition on Women and AIDS saw the virtual consultation as a unique opportunity to truly enable women and girls from across the world to share their views on what women's priorities and needs are for the future HIV response. The virtual consultation, undertaken in partnership with the ATHENA Network, created space for women from all walks of life. The nearly 900 women who engaged are a true testament to women's commitment and desire to be leaders in shaping an HIV response which effectively meets their needs," said the Head of the Global Coalition on Women and AIDS, Jantine Jacobi.
 
The virtual consultation was conducted through a network of regional and technical focal points to ensure the greatest possible engagement of women and girls in all our diversity, and in acknowledgement of the fact that many women still lack access to the internet. Inviolata Mbwavi of the Grassroots Empowerment Trust in Kenya, underscored the importance of support groups as sites of reaching and mobilising women. “That’s where you find women, that’s where you can mobilise them and hear what women are saying.” Assumpta Reginald, coordinator of the international Community of Women Living with HIV and AIDS (ICW) Nigeria, reached and mobilised women to take part in the consultation through use of text messaging on mobile phones.
 
The process of the virtual consultation, the In Women’s Words: Action Agenda and Dialogue for African Action do not end here. Engaging young women – especially those of us living with and affected by HIV – cannot be a one-off action, but requires sustained commitment and resources: for translation (eg of policy instruments, or advocacy tools), transport, food, internet access, for investment in support groups, and for the creation of spaces and time. Time to engage with the issues; time to find a voice and realise our agency; time to tell our stories; time to find solidarity; time to make change happen. In one young woman’s words, “I want to have stigma and discrimination disappear. I want to have positive hope for tomorrow. I am strong, proud and beautiful. I want to be part of the solution.”