Listening. And Then Listening Some More.

Adwoa Afreh (Twitter: @Afresh_handle); ELCA Young Adults in Global Mission Alumni – Southern Africa

Earlier this week, I arrived back in South Africa, a familiar place, a humbling place and forever a teaching place. Being in this space for the 21st International AIDS Conference is strengthening. The truth telling that I have witnessed has been the highlight of my time here. I applaud this conference for creating spaces for various organizations and movements to stand in their truth and call upon more allies to stand in solidarity with them. During my time here, many panelists and speakers have advocated for vulnerable and stigmatized groups like sex workers, young children, LGBTQI, gender based violence victims etc., to be invited at the conversation table regarding the eradication of HIV.

In these past days I’ve been spending time listening and listening and listening some more to sex workers, interfaith leaders, pharmaceutical representatives, activists, and conference goers. It seems like this 2030 goal is what most people have been speaking of the most. The goal being ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic by the year 2030. Realistic? Possibly. Is the work going to be difficult? Most definitely. Nonetheless, I will be honest and say that I have a few doubts about that goal date.

Knowing that funding regarding treatments aren’t increasing that much and knowing that some governments are not acknowledging all whom this disease affects (like LGBTQI, men having sex with men, sex workers, people who are incarcerated), I have some doubts about the achievement of the 2030 goal. In a panel session with Allia Darlings Nalunkuma, a transgender person from Uganda, she spoke bravely on the tactics her government are using to forcefully exclude the LGBTQI peoples. In Uganda, if found committing “homosexual acts” you will be imprisoned 14 years to life.

Nalunkuma shared an experience of going to the hospital to access Antiretroviral drugs and she remembers how insensitive doctors and nurses were when they know you are HIV positive. Unfortunately, that is the case in numerous countries. The stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS is so backwards that people continue to be insensitive to people with HIV/AIDS.  Health institutions should be a place of solace and when it is not, it makes the goal of eradicating HIV/AIDS by 2030 daunting. When it is not it prevents beings from being open with their status and seeking counseling and treatment. It prevents communities from understanding that the bodies are not the enemy, HIV/AIDS is.

HIV/AIDS is not a death sentence. HIV/AIDS does not discriminate the bodies it affects.  The work does not start and end with leaders and health practitioners but it should continue within faith communities, schools, LGBTQI communities, neighborhoods, prison grounds etc. This week has brought conviction, gratitude and privilege to be present at these conversations and tables but my advocacy does not end here either.

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