Black women lead groundbreaking women’s preconference to International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa
By April Eugene
Despite many scientific and biomedical advances, women worldwide are acquiring HIV at an alarming rate. In an effort to shift the conversation to include those most at risk, on July 13-15, the Women Now! 2016 pre-conference to the 21st International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa, will focus on HIV, sexual and reproductive health, and justice for women, particularly of African descent. This is the first in a series on the IAC.
The Women Now! 2016: Pan-African Women’s Summit will convene a broad spectrum of activists and professionals to address critical areas of concern for women’s human rights as viewed through an intersectional lens. Organizers want women and girls prioritized more highly in the global response to HIV/AIDS at this critical juncture in the advancement of HIV prevention technology and advocacy.
“The [high] level of interest and excitement is a telling sign that we are all hungry to have these conversations and might speak to the fact that we haven’t tackled some of these issues,” says co-chair Dázon Dixon Diallo—founder and president of SisterLove Inc., an Atlanta-based reproductive-justice organization with ties to South Africa—of the conference, which is expected to attract 350 attendees. Sub-Saharan Africa has one of the highest rates of HIV infection among women, who are estimated to account for 60 percent of new infections, and 74 percent of PLWHA ages 15 to 24, there. Overall, women account for more than half of the global HIV pandemic.
Scheduled to take place over two-and-a-half days, the summit’s primary goal is to create a position statement to introduce at the start of the International AIDS Conference. “The purpose is to represent the voice of women of African descent and the issues that we want to ensure are prioritized at AIDS 2016,” says Diallo. These issues include race, economic status, gender equality, women’s empowerment, gender-based trauma and violence, sexual- and reproductive-health rights, and social justice.
Confirmed plenary speakers include Deborah L. Birx, M.D., ambassador-at-large and U.S. global AIDS coordinator and U.S. special representative for global health diplomacy at PEPFAR; Gina Brown, M.D., coordinator of women and girls and microbicides research at the National Institute of Health’s Office of AIDS Research; Bathabile Dlamini, deputy minister of social development for South Africa; Olive Shisana, Ph.D., local co-chair of AIDS 2016 and president of Evidence Based Solutions; and young women who will share their own experiences.
Co-chair Mandisa Dlamini, founder of the Gugu Dlamini Foundation—an organization she started in memory of her mother, who was killed after openly admitting that she was HIV positive—will be a part of the summit’s opening session, along with gospel singer and motivational speaker Musa Njoko, who has been living with the virus since 1994. The sessions include workshops, skill- and solidarity-building sessions, HIV 101, as well as open spaces for videos, films and collaborative art. “We’re also putting together a town hall meeting composed of intergenerational women to speak about their issues on access to sexual reproductive health,” adds Diallo. “We want to hear from people in the crowd also.”
Co-chair Yvette Raphael, a human rights and HIV activist currently working at the Johns Hopkins Centre for Communication Impact South Africa and co-founder of the Tshwaranang Care Center for People Living With AIDS in South Africa, says, “This will be the first time in the history of the IAC that women of color from around the globe have an opportunity to come together and discuss issues that directly impact and affect them. It is also different because it is a meeting uniquely organized by women for women.”
Another South African co-chair is Prudence Mabele, founder of Positive Women’s Network. Diallo describes Raphael and Mabele as “two of the leading South African women on HIV and sexual reproductive rights.”
“We hope we’re able to amplify the voice of young women and girls of African descent for the participants at the IAC in a way that gets them thinking and includes them differently,” Diallo continues.
There was a special push to bring more Black American women to the AIDS 2016. Diallo expects 50 to 100 African American women to attend Women Now! 2016. “At AIDS 2014, Olive Shisana said, ‘I want you to make sure as many Black American women as possible come to Durban,’ Diallo adds.”That was powerful because we’re not usually represented in the global discourse, especially when it comes to sexually reproductive, maternal and child health. Forgetting that we have developing communities in the United States in situations—whether HIV or unintended pregnancy or infant mortality or even maternal mortality—as high as some of our counterparts, including sub-Saharan Africa.”
Raphael says that women should attend because this will be an opportunity to learn from other women who are working in HIV and living with HIV.
“We are at a tipping point in the fight against HIV and AIDS; a lot of research and policy are gearing toward the end of HIV,” she says. “However, this is not the reality for many countries, especially those where women carry the burden of HIV infection. We need to learn from our efforts so far and plan for the realities that some countries face. Even though a lot has been done so far, much more needs to be done with the challenges that women face.”
April Eugene is a Philadelphia-based writer.