On Sunday, July 18th, the International AIDS Conference kicked off with a four hour opening plenary session wherein over 150 women of diverse nationalities, ages, serostatuses, and sexual identities, lifted up our banners and declared, “Walk the walk – women’s rights, right here, right now!” We shouted our mantra, sat as a unified group in the center of the room, and proudly wore our Women ARISE t-shirts. And women did indeed “arise” right before Michel Sidibé, the Director of UNAIDS, spoke. We made it clear that the only way to end this epidemic is through gender equality, empowering women, fulfilling our sexual and reproductive rights and health, and providing all young people with comprehensive sexuality education.
The opening plenary of the IAC in Vienna had three main messages:
Here are some of the highlights from speakers and attendees:
Rachel Arinii, an alumna of IWHC’s Advocacy in Practice training delivered an amazing speech to thousands of people, in which she highlighted the diversity of young people and the importance of engaging them in creating realistic solutions.
Austria’s President, Heinz Fischer, said he finally “got” why women are particularly vulnerable to HIV.
Paula from the AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA) called for accountability and human rights, and exposed the corruption and priority given to luxury, war, and greed, versus fulfilling our right to health.
IWHC co-hosted a dialogue among women of all ages. Nafis Sadik, former executive director of UNFPA, boldly stated that she feels there is not one culture, religion, or tradition that respects and empowers women. Instead, she said that societies exert control over women’s bodies, rights, and lives. Women’s sexuality in particular, she went on to say, is something all societies want to control and men feel threatened by.
Temitayo Olofinlua, who works with Prevention Access Treatment Action in Nigeria, said: “The most important thing, for us as women, is to know our rights. As a woman living with HIV, I might not want to get married, but the programs don’t target me if I’m not. When talking with older women, I want to be listened to, respected, and supported in my choices.”
Oriana Lopez, who runs the MARIA Abortion Fund for Social Justice in Mexico, said, “The struggle for women’s rights is still ours. It is in no way over. We, in all our diversity, need to be unified and work together across generations to make the world better for all by empowering women. “
Young women are at the table, we are in leadership, and this is what we are demanding: to share power, to share spaces, to learn from each other and to share knowledge, experience, and perspectives.