The International AIDS Conference has ended, but the discussion and debate go on, and no doubt will for months and years to come. Yesterday (Monday) I joined 20 Anglicans, including partners from South Africa, Kenya, Hong Kong, the Philippines (I represented El Salvador), to share our experiences, impressions, learnings and evaluations of the ecumencial pre-conference and the IAC itself. It was a most enlightening, productive–and often entertaining–exchange. These partners also reflected on their speaking invitations to local Anglican congregations, an opportunity which I don’t believe was pursued by the ELCIC with our 60-plus global partners here in Toronto for these events.
A “faith-based” response to AIDS certainly is not a matter of consensus. Many AIDS activists speaking throughout the conference made subtle and not-so-subtle references to the ways in which faith-based groups had slowed or blocked the fight against AIDS. It will be a challenge to rebuild trust and cooperation, so crucial in this inter-sectoral battle against AIDS. Some in the ELCA even feel that Bishop Hanson doesn’t have the legitimacy or credibility to speak to an issue such as HIV / AIDS, considering the ELCA’s track record and stance on sexual diversity and human rights.
On Wednesday evening, I went to our residence lounge for the group reflection, and was joined by two evangelical women from the USA. They were determined to conquer AIDS by bringing the entire world to the Lord, one heart at a time–with a little help from their President Bush’s AIDS money and programs (PEPFAR), which had also been subjected to much criticism throughout the conference. Oh me of little faith, but . . . would that the world might survive so long. Not a fan of cell-phones, I was nevertheless thankful for a call received by one of them which interrupted our conversation that was going nowhere.
Prevention was a major theme of this conference, alongside care and treatment. Much of the debate was around the effectiveness of the much-touted “ABC” prevention method. Others offered their own expanded acronyms. Here are some of the objectives we seek to implement through Quetzalcoatl in El Salvador, working primarily with at-risk-youth in prisons and on the streets:
- A — Abstinence — Avoid exchange of potentially-infected bodily fluids (semen, vaginal fluids, blood and mother’s milk), including safer sex
- B — Be faithful, in a mutually-faithful relationship — Build self-esteem
- C — Condoms, carefully used — Community-based prevention programs and support systems
- D — Defend the dignity and the human rights (health, education, labour, etc.) especially of those most vulnerable to HIV infection
- E — Enable open communication and respect at every level, especially with one’s sexual partner(s)
- F — Fight stigma and discrimination
- G — Give voice to those silenced
- H — Hear what they are saying — Harm-reduction programs
- I — Implement / Increase / Improve awareness and adequate health programs
- J — Join forces in partnerships and networks
- K — Keep our promises, and hold others, including governments, to theirs
- L — Love our neighbours
This might be an exhausting list but, even so, it’s not exhaustive. AIDS is so much more than a virus and a condom.
While the Conference Centre was the brains of this massive IAC, the Global Village was clearly the heart. Open to the public, it was an extensive and diverse offering by those who didn’t have an academic study to present in a sterile conference hall (the IAC offered 9,979 of these, with more than 40,000 panelists). The setting provided many spaces for the youth, the women, the sex-trade workers, the transsexuals, the faith-based groups, the non-governmental organizations . . . to display their educational materials, their artwork, their photos, their dance, their theatre . . . This was done with much passion and sincerity and creativity. This was people telling their own stories, rather than having their lives and cultures presented as data and graphs in a power-point presentation by some academic. Time spent in these settings flew by, and left me feeling very enriched and motivated to face the challenges.
Two years from now, this IAC will be held in Mexico City. The Latinos/as should feel more included. However, the official hosts–men–welcomed only the “amigos”, and not the “amigas”, in their speeches, a “faux pas” (pardon my Spanish) which wouldn’t go over well in Central America, and didn’t go over well with the Honduran and Guatemalan “amigas” with whom I was sitting, especially after just hearing Stephen Lewis’ stirring call for the empowerment of women and the increase in the number of women in leadership roles.
I attended some youth events, including their final evaluation, and was impressed by the seriousness with which they face the challenges presented to them. Youth participation, which doubled to 1,000 from Bangkok in 2004, is to double again in Mexico. Perhaps we could charter busloads of youth from El Salvador (and Canada?), or bring in a few of our gang-boys from the surrounding streets. Visas shouldn’t be so much of a hurdle for young Salvadorans heading to Mexico in 2008.
I would like to thank the ELCIC for giving me the opportunity to attend both the Ecumenical Pre-Conference and the IAC. Both have impacted me greatly and, by means of this blog and other information channels, hopefully some of you readers as well, and our church as a whole. I await your responses, either via this same blog-site, or personally. As we’ve been reminded consistently over these past two weeks, it is time to “Keep the Promise” and it is “Time to Deliver”.