By: Kate Bjorklund
What does it mean to not only recognize, but to honor World AIDS Day? At FACE AIDS, we believe that in addition to acknowledging the local and global impact of HIV, we must also take decisive action to both prevent the spread of HIV and improve the quality of life for those who are living with HIV.
For FACE AIDS students across the United States and abroad, World AIDS Day is a time to screen films, moderate expert panels, engage their friends and family through personal fundraising campaigns, and invite speakers who are living with HIV to share their stories.
For President Obama, World AIDS Day is a time to ensure that the United States commits five billion dollars to the Global Fund at this year’s Replenishment Conference on December 2nd and 3rd.
Organizations like RESULTS are working to ensure President Obama honors his role in creating an AIDS-free generation by fully funding the Global Fund. RESULTS mobilizes ordinary citizens in a chapter model (similar to FACE AIDS) to lobby their legislators and write op-eds, editorials, and letters to the editor around the issue of poverty. Through these actions, grassroots volunteers of all ages and backgrounds educate their communities while holding their elected officials accountable to creating and supporting legislation to end poverty and improve health outcomes at home and abroad.
It was at a RESULTS meeting in the Bay Area that I was introduced to Joyce Kamwana, an international HIV and Global Fund advocate from Malawi, and Blair Hinderliter, the Director of Communications and Operations at RESULTS. Together, they are on a RESULTS-led media tour to promote the Global Fund. While Blair is leading this tour as part of his role at RESULTS, Joyce traveled to the U.S. to join this tour in order to “give a face and voice to what the Global Fund has done.”
Joyce tested positive for HIV in 1988. Three years later, she lost her husband to an AIDS-related illness. Soon after, she lost her job due to HIV related stigma and was therefore unable to afford HIV treatment for 15 years. Her low immune response led her to contract TB in both 1998 and 2001. Finally, in 2004, Joyce found out about free medication available through the Global Fund. Her treatment has since been uninterrupted. Joyce now works with a civil society group called Coalition of Women Living with HIV and AIDS in Malawi (COWLHA) and trains people living with HIV/AIDS in positive living to help them in their new lifestyle. She has also worked for the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Agriculture, and Dept. of Nutrition, HIV and AIDS, and has developed materials on HIV, human rights, and gender for the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation.
Last week, I had the good fortune to host Joyce and Blair at the FACE AIDS National Office. I spoke with Joyce about her work supporting people living with HIV, how she has benefited from the Global Fund, and the role of students in the fight to end AIDS.
Here are some of the highlights of our conversation:
On her work in Malawi with the Coalition for Women Living with HIV/AIDS:
J: Way back in 2006, we sat down as women with HIV/AIDS and decided to say … HIV impacts us differently because we are women…
[In Malawi] We have support groups for people living with HIV/AIDS […] I could be sitting with my partner and I may be having problems with my partner and I may not be able to air that out because in Malawi there’s still a culture of male dominance. So we wanted to have a conducive environment where we could sort of compare notes, air out our issues, and work out solutions. So the areas we’re looking at right now are women’s rights, empowerment of women through income-generating activities, also some HIV/AIDS programs, and how to combat gender-based violence, especially against women.
When one tests HIV positive, we say that is not the end of life. In a sense, it’s the beginning of a new life. A new life in the sense that now you have to live like someone who is HIV positive and there are certainly do’s and don’ts that you need to follow. Positive living is like a package which includes nutrition, positive prevention in order to not get re-infected, having a stress free mind so that you don’t lower your immunity further, and also joining people in support groups where you can sort of encourage each other, and also commit yourself to God in prayer and maybe have a healthy relationship with your creator. Because when everything else fails, people tend to turn to god. Also, in the positive living package, you have to be kept abreast about what is happening—the new developments that are happening around HIV/AIDS and also encourage each other to get treated for the mildest sign of illness. You might have the flu, just an ordinary flu or cough yourself, and can will clear away just by drinking lots of water. But with me, if I neglect that, it might turn into something serious and end up being life threatening.
On the situation in Malawi before and after the Global Fund:
J: AIDS was discovered in Malawi in 1985. Malawi has a population of 15 million and about 1 million is infected with HIV. 63% of the people who are HIV positive are also infected with TB. Before […] the Global Fund in Malawi, we used to have 10 people dying every hour due to AIDS related illnesses. After […] the Global Fund, we only have about one person dying per day. With TB, whether one is HIV positive or not, if you get the right treatment and adhere to the right treatment we have a success rate of more than 85%. [Before the Global Fund] HIV itself was looked at as a death sentence. You’d get treated for TB and cured but then if you didn’t manage the HIV part, most likely you would die due to lowered immunity or other opportunistic infections. And out of the one million people who are HIV positive in Malawi close to half a million are accessing free treatment through the Global Fund.
On the role of the U.S. in the Global Fund:
J: For each and every dollar the United States contributes toward the Global Fund, it translates to two dollars from other donor countries. So the U.S. is sort of looked at, for lack of a better word, as the super power. I think in so many ways it has been leading by example. People might […] have negative attitudes toward the U.S., but we sort of look at the U.S. as the leader […] in so many things.
On the role of students in HIV/AIDS activism:
J: Age is of utmost importance, because […] HIV does not discriminate. HIV doesn’t look at how young one is, or educated, poor, rich, fat, thin, or whatever. HIV affects everyone […] You might not be infected but you are affected. If you leave out the young generation […] they might not have the information in regards to prevention and also might not have the information as to how the virus is transmitted.
The past few years we’ve been talking about an AIDS-free generation […] I would say it’s high-time the younger generation committed themselves to say yes, we are going to take part in creating an AIDS free generation.
[…] We say the youth are the leaders of tomorrow. If we are to wait for tomorrow, tomorrow might never come. So it’s right and proper that they start now and assume a leadership role while they are still young.
B: I would imagine most of your students are able to vote or will be able to vote in a year. So really, they hold important power in the districts where they live. And we have an important election coming up next year so they should be meeting with their members of Congress or at least writing them letters saying that look, this is an important issue to me. Or they could write an article in their student newspaper.
On how students can take action for the Global Fund Replenishment Conference:
B: For students in the US, they should go to results.org. They can easily submit a letter to the editor of their local paper in support of the Global Fund leading up to the replenishment. We’re asking the U.S. to commit to five billion dollars over the next three years, so to make a five billion pledge at that replenishment conference which will lead to fifteen billion dollars total.
Obama has been supportive of this issue over the past five years and came out with the largest pledge ever back in 2010, so we’re counting on him to pull through again. […] The more we’re talking about this, the more attention the U.S. government will give to it.
For more information on the Global Fund and what you can do leading up to the Replenishment Conference, visit action.org and results.org.