We need a conspiracy of hope, fueled by outrage, which won’t take no for an answer!

IPPF EN's Caroline Hickson and Rutgers at AIDS2018 pre-conference on SRHR

IPPF EN's Caroline Hickson on what she took away from this week's AIDS2018 pre-conference on sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Our bodies aren’t divided into sectors. So how can we cross the self-created gulf between those who work to defeat HIV and AIDS, and those who fight for sexual and reproductive health and rights for all? At this week’s International AIDS Conference, IPPF, Rutgers and partners joined forces to debate the issue, inspire fresh thinking and drive collaborative action at the first ever pre-conference dealing with this issue.

At the end of the day, the answer didn’t seem too complicated.  It was said over and over again, by different speakers: it is as simple as putting the human experience back at the centre of all we do. Compelling stories came through loud and clear: 

Jacob Thomas from Australia described the hurt experienced as a young student, a virgin, when a doctor refused treatment for an ordinary chest infection. Instead, having asked about Jacob’s sexuality, the doctor insisted on an HIV test being administered. “After I told him I was gay, he never once looked straight at me”.  The result for Jacob?  Confusion, shame, and a lifelong mistrust of doctors.

Lada Nuzhna, an 18-year-old activist from Ukraine, conveyed the loneliness of teenagers who live with HIV in her country.  While their peers are experiencing the excitement of first love, they tell her they are too frightened to even kiss someone in case they give them HIV.

Simran, a transgender sex worker from India, passionately defended the fact that “I, and only I, decide who I am’’.

A photo from the first AIDS Conference in 1992 was doing the rounds on social media, a massive floor to ceiling quilt of names of those who had lost their lives to AIDS.  It reminds us that love and loss, those things at the core of our humanity, are what have driven the intensity of the AIDS response. That is why, as Rutgers’ Ton Coenen put it, “HIV organisations don’t take no for an answer”. Robin Gorna of She Decides spoke of becoming an AIDS activist because of the outrage that she felt on seeing her friends dying: “We must continue to be outraged, to be driven by evidence-based outrage”.

This evidence lies in numbers, but more importantly it also lies in people’s stories. The stories which have the power to awake our indignation and our anger, our empathy and our generosity of heart.  We must bring those stories to the fore and let them help people understand what it really means not to have any power over your own life, to have your sexual and reproductive freedom stifled, to be forced through pregnancy, to be willfully kept illiterate about intimacy and endangered through lack of knowledge about sexuality.

Because it is these abuses and cruelties that contribute to HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, to unintended pregnancies, to violence against women, to the marginalisation of people who are transgender, to maternal deaths…  The recent Guttmacher–Lancet Commission report finds that there is no health without rights. And those rights begin long before the diagnosis of HIV, long before the need for abortion, long before an attack on a transgender individual.

If we want to cure the symptoms caused by the denial of human rights, civil society organisations and activists must work together from the get-go.  We need a new and ‘visionary generosity’, said Javier Hourcade Bellocq of GNP+, based on what needs to be done for people and not for our organisations. HIV organisations need to take the plunge to talk about abortion.  SRHR organisations need to prioritise key populations, the groups most vulnerable to HIV.

And together, said Alvaro Bermejo of IPPF, we must work to see what it takes to mobilise the resistance. Robin Gorna perhaps coined it best – let’s launch a conspiracy of hope! This may well be the phrase that lingers in people’s minds as they spend the rest of the week in Amsterdam. A conspiracy of hope, fueled by evidence-based outrage, which won’t take no for an answer! Until HIV is no more, and every person can live a fulfilled and free emotional and intimate life.

Photo: Caroline Hickson and Ton Coenen join a panel discussion at the SRHR pre-conference. Credit: Rutgers.