04 December 2009

World AIDS Day - Living Positively - Positively Alive

December is a festive season - it starts with World AIDS Day (1 December) and is then followed by International Human Rights Day (10 December).

London is a great place to be for World AIDS Day, as people are generally not persecuted for being HIV positive or for their sexual orientation. Also, a hub of people engaged in HIV/AIDS research can be found in London, among them natural scientists, the human rights and development lobbies, students, various groups across the LGBT spectrum and other groups of people standing up in solidarity for those who have been infected with the virus.

Therefore, it was not really surprising to be invited to the launch of the documentary "Courage & Hope" in the Houses of Parliament, organised by the Partnership for Child Development at Imperial College London. The event's keynote speaker was no-one less than former Executive Director of UNAIDS and former Under Secretary-General, Peter Piot (MD PhD) who has moved on to direct the new Institute of Global Health at Imperial College London.

Courage & Hope is a documentary based on a book with the same name collecting the experiences of twelve teachers across Sub-Saharan Africa. The movie highlights four Kenyan teachers who speak about their diagnosis, the stigma they faced from different sides and how they eventually have managed to prevail by engaging in a network of teachers who face similar problems. Some of those teachers featured in the film came all the way from Kenya to attend the launch. The film was first screened at the International Conference for AIDS and STDs in Africa (ICASA) in Senegal last year. The documentary is well worth watching, you find the whole version of it below. If you want to watch the trailer first, then just watch the first 1.30min.

Courage and Hope Video:

I liked the documentary for portraying people living with HIV (or PLHIV as they are sometimes abbreviated to) positively and in charge. In fact I would like to show this documentary to a person I know in Vienna who, despite having a multinational family network and being generally welcoming to people from anywhere, still uses the word Orientalen in what she believes are politically correct intentions and uses exclamations such as "But that's like in the third world!" - And this is a woman who has travelled a lot around Europe but has never even set foot on Africa or Asia beyond the Jordan and South of the Sahara. She admires the natural healing methods from "the third world" but apparently she needs a bit of... enlightenment by a development anthropologist. She was embarassed when I told her but I think that a bit of Bildungsarbeit or awareness raising might not be out of place.

In fact, - tying this to a bigger picture - the reason why the image of development in Austria is the way it is, is because subjects of development work are portrayed as powerless victims who never stop asking for money in catchy TV ads, with no agency of their own and no ability to be entrepreneurs. The "third world" is merged into a single apolitical and ahistorical group represented by a malnourished Sub-Saharan African child with sad dog's eyes appealing for a donation or a sponsorship. Popular causes in Austria (acute wars and disasters excluding) are health (especially the blind), food and sanitation; AIDS not so much and community development is considered a luxury. Sadly, since this figurative child tends to come back year after year, its psychological effect is that the viewers believe that their money does not seem to make a dfference after all.

At SOAS, being the place it is, some societies organised some awareness-raising events and featured a movie movie called Tapologo:

Synopsis: "In Freedom Park, a squatter settlement in South Africa, a group of HIV-infected former sex-workers, created a network called Tapologo. They learn to be Home Based Carers for their community, transforming degradation into solidarity and squalor into hope. Catholic bishop Kevin Dowling participates in Tapologo, and raises doubts on the official doctrine of the Catholic Church regarding AIDS and sexuality in the African context" (from the movie's website)

Tapologo Video:

In Malaysia, AIDS Memorial Day, as it is called there, is celebrated in May. A brief summary with pictures about the events the Pink Triangle Foundation (THE NGO for HIV/AIDS in Malaysia) has organised this year, can be found here. The list includes a cemetery clean-up in Gombak (a "suburb" of KL), a multi-faith prayer with guests such as the Deputy Minister of Women, Family and Community Development (I wonder what the actual Minister was up to), the Vice-Chancellor of the National University (same here) and the Chairman of the PTF; finally, a Candle Ceremony at a Men in Tutus performance with the UN Resident Coordinator for Malaysia

Another event organised by the PTF but mentioned on a separate web page since it took place right before World AIDS Day, is the annual street carnival in Sungei Wang Plaza, a big centrally located shopping mall! Although it was advertised big including TimeOut KL, there are hardly any pictures - probably to provide privacy and ensure outreach. The event: "Last year our 200 volunteers managed to distribute 35,000 Red Ribbons, 30,000 pieces of Safer Sex information and 1,268 people took part in our survey on discrimination towards the marginalised community."

As it is a global event about a global issue, I tried to capture the issue of AIDS in different parts of the world, and since most HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns in the West focus on sub-Saharan Africa where it definitely does claim the most lives, I decided to highlight Southeast Asia instead.

The first video is about HIV/AIDS in Vietnam by a US-American NGO based in Washington D.C., the International Research Center for Women, who to be honest, I have never heard of before. Although it is narrated by what at least sounds like a non-Vietnamese person (for lack of visual reference), and is actually an ad in character, I chose it because it shows how advocacy and awareness-raising look like in practice. Probably due to (fear of) censorship and the strong stigma still prevalent in Vietnam, it was hard to find a video by Vietnam-based civil society group.

The second video is about HIV-positive settlers in Cambodia who were forcibly relocated into what in the global media became known as an "AIDS colony". The news on this broke end of July and news agencies from the Jakarta Post to CNN have covered it, so you might have actually heard about this scandal. Watch the report from Al Jazeera:

In Southeast Asia, the countries with highest estimated prevalence in numbers of infected people aged 15-49 only are:
  • Burma: 240 000 (0.7%)
  • Thailand: 610 000 (1.4%)
  • Vietnam: 250 000 (0.5%)
  • Indonesia (especially Papua): 270 000 but due to its large population, Indonesia's prevalence rate "just" makes up 0.2% of the population
(Source: UNAIDS)
Although of course, numbers can be very impressive, what matters most is the (government) response to the disease (ie to reduce the number of newly infected, raising awareness, providing education for children orphaned by HIV/AIDS), the inclusion of people in society, and last but definitely not least, their access to ART (Anti-Retroviral Therapy) treatment.

The most severely affected country by HIV/AIDS world-wide in numbers is Zimbabwe with 1 300 000 people infected or 15.3%

At last, be safe my friends! It can happen to anyone anywhere!

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