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International AIDS Conference Wraps Up in Rwanda

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An international AIDS conference wrapped up in Rwanda's capital Tuesday with speakers urging participants to continue the fight against HIV/AIDS, provide employment opportunities to people living with the virus, and reach out to communities to give relevant care and treatment. Cathy Majtenyi reports for VOA from Kigali.

Rwandan First Lady Jeanette Kagame closed the conference by challenging African governments and societies to break taboos surrounding HIV/AIDS, stop practicing unsafe sex, and protect children from becoming infected.

She urged participants to continue to fight HIV/AIDS and not to discriminate against people living with the disease.

"Too often, we are elaborating our efforts to protect the reputation of the wealthy and say they died or are suffering from ailments other than AIDS," said Kagame. "But at the same time, we are quick to judge the poor as irresponsible when they become victims of this scourge. AIDS does not make social judgments, so why do we? AIDS does not affect families based on their economic wealth, so why should we?"

Kagame said that, in her country, the fight against HIV/AIDS is particularly intense because of what Rwanda went through in 1994, when ethnic Hutu extremists waged genocide against minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

"You all know that barely 13 years ago we lost over a million lives in just 100 days," she said. "We simply cannot afford to lose any more lives to an affliction we can do something about."

Kagame was one of the speakers closing the four-day HIV/AIDS Implementers Meeting in which about 2,000 participants from around the globe looked at how governments, business, the health care sector and others can collaborate in the fight against HIV/ AIDS.

Artist and UNAIDS special representative Mary Fisher, who designs bracelets and employs HIV positive women in Rwanda and Zambia to make the jewelry, also addressed the meeting.

Fisher, who is HIV positive, said poverty-stricken women living with HIV/AIDS need steady work with decent wages and fair compensation for what they produce so they can take charge of their lives and feed and clothe their families.

"My sisters are weary of charity. We want work," said Fisher. "We do not want medications that keep us breathing but enslaved. We want the dignity that comes with proving that we matter, the power that accompanies a just wage. Drugs give us the capacity to live, but employment gives us a reason."

In many presentations throughout the conference, experts stressed the need to make HIV/AIDS programs and services relevant to the people they serve and to involve local communities in the design and implementation of those programs.

Father Edward Philips, a Catholic priest who works in Nairobi's informal settlements, said he and his colleagues came up with a way of getting people to stick to their cumbersome anti-retroviral regimes.

"We're asking people to take the medication for the rest of their lives," said Philips. "So how do we motivate them on a consistent basis to take medicines for the rest of their lives? Kenyans love certificates. And so I said, hey, let's make certificates. If you take your medication well, at the end of the year you're going to get a certificate. It's also a stigma breaker."

The conference was sponsored by the United States President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, along with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the World Bank, and three United Nations agencies.

Sub-Saharan Africa is especially hard hit by the scourge. Although the continent contains 10 percent of the world's population, it is home to almost 70 percent of people around the globe living with HIV/AIDS.

The United States President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief is a five-year, $15 billion initiative to help countries treat and prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.

 

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