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Professionals >> Visit The Body PROThe Body en Espanol cover the XIX International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2012)
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Women Living With HIV at AIDS 2012 Part 2: Positive Women at AIDS 2012

May 17, 2012

How can women living with HIV who attend the International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2012) be meaningfully involved? There are probably as many ways as there are conference attendees (about 20,000 - 30,000!).

Conference Set Up

To set the scene for those who will be attending their first conference, the conference is made up of two main venues: 1) the main conference and 2) the Global Village.

  1. The Global Village
    The Global Village is free and open to the public. It is filled with booths from organizations involved in HIV work from all over the world. There are sound stages and music and dance performances, films, workshops, and networking zones in the Global Village. Most of the activism will get planned here.
  2. The Main Conference
    The main conference is organized like a professional scientific conference where one needs a registration to enter. There are conference rooms, large and small, and halls set up with poster presentations. There will be skills-building workshops held here as well. Most of the new research findings and announcements will come from the main conference.
  3. Positive Lounge
    There will be a PLHIV lounge in the main conference designated as a place for positive people to rest, find some nutritious snacks, take medications privately, and network with one another. In Mexico City, the PLHIV lounge was peaceful and softly lit. They served two meals per day and had massage therapists on hand. In Vienna, there were espresso machines, snack bars, and yoghurt and vouchers for positive people to get their meals in restaurants throughout the conference center. If it were up to me, the Mexican Network of People Living with HIV would organize the PLHIV lounge at every conference!

Positive Women's Involvement

In terms of positive women's involvement, I would keep two things in mind:

  1. Involvement with other positive people and
  2. Participating in conference sessions and workshops.

Networking With Other Positive People

First, engaging with other positive people is a form of greater and more meaningful involvement in the HIV response. It builds solidarity and allows us to learn from each other. You can get a sense of who the other positive people at the conference are by attending one of the pre-conferences, or in a networking zone in the Global Village, in the PLHIV lounge in the main conference, or through a workshop or presentation. I strongly encourage you to talk with other people. You can start building relationships and get a deeper sense of what being HIV positive means in different women's, and men's, lives.  It is safe and acceptable here to ask if you can join someone new during a meal and strike up a conversation. I met a very dear friend four years ago in the PLHIV lounge in Mexico City by asking, in terrible Spanish, whether I could join him at breakfast time. Some of the most meaningful, interesting conversations that I have had at IACs were in the PLHIV lounge.


Attending Sessions

The conference sessions and workshops need the voices and perspectives of positive people -- and positive people need the access to the latest information and the opportunity to lend our voices to the interpretations that researchers propose. The PLHIV lounge and the Global Village can feel comfortable and fun, but be brave and go into the main conference sessions too.

The program will be huge. I recommend that you check the program carefully and allow yourself lots of time for going through it and goal-setting. There are lots of sessions. Try to attend as many as possible. Pay attention to the global village schedule as well because there are many valuable workshops and activities there. Pay particular attention to sessions highlighted by groups you are part of and respect, because those sessions are probably going to be especially relevant, community-based and inclusive of people living with HIV. Look at the "road maps" to the conference put out by PWN, GNP+, ICW, and other organizations or issue areas that are important to you.

If you can, go to the plenaries every morning or watch them in the Global Village. If you can make it to all of the plenaries, you'll have a good broad overview of the current state of the epidemic and response to the epidemic around the world and among different key populations. Some of the plenary speakers have in past conferences scheduled time at the Global Village after their plenary speech. This is a more intimate setting and provides a good chance to be able to ask them questions about their area of expertise.

I would encourage you to try to branch out in at least one or two different ways from the work that you normally do. I ended up at a session on intellectual property rights in 2008. This was something I had not thought much about in terms of access to medications; I learned the situation was not what I assumed it was in terms of bilateral treaty agreements between countries that would limit people's access to HIV medications. It was really eye opening, really well done, and I learned a key piece about the HIV response that I would not have known and would not have realized that I could easily grasp if I had not sat in that session and heard from the presenters directly.

Engaging in Sessions

In the sessions and workshops, don't be afraid to ask what something means. It is absolutely acceptable to stand up at the microphone during the question and answer time and ask someone to speak more about something that was in a slide or something she/he said and to say, "I'm not sure what that meant, could you say more about that?" The conference is designed for doctors, scientists, and people at the grassroots, including activists, community members, and people living with HIV, so it should be accessible to all of us. From the perspective of someone who has also been a presenter, in my experience we all appreciate being asked to say more about things that are interesting to us. The presenters have been instructed to keep their presentations very brief, usually ten minutes, so asking questions allows a presenter the chance to share a bit more and to learn a bit about what those in the audience find most relevant about her or his research.

For women attending who do not speak English as a first language, you should know that there is always simultaneous translation available for the plenary sessions and sometimes for the other sessions as well. Bring a driver's license or other identification to use to "check out" a headset to use. I hope you will not be intimidated by language into keeping your thoughts to yourself. If you are in session that is being held in English and you would rather ask a question in Spanish or another language, it is ok to ask if there is anyone there who can translate for you.  if you are more comfortable with a different language. I have seen this done a number of times. The official conference languages are English and Spanish.

Also, everyone attending should know that there will be people communicating in English at all levels of fluency, including some presenters.  It is absolutely fine to speak in English even if you don't feel you are completely fluent. That is just part of the international process. If you are a native English speaker, be kind to those who are not and try to remember to slow down and enunciate your words clearly. When there are language barriers, an open face and smile and good intentions go a long way toward communication.

I have a few final thoughts about the emotional effects of the international AIDS conferences that I would like to share in the hope that it will be helpful or interesting to others.

Stay tuned for Part 3: HIV+ Women's Rights and Bringing Our Emotions to the Surface.

Laurel Sprague is GNP+/NA regional coordinator.

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This article was provided by Positive Women's Network of the United States of America. Visit PWN-USA's website to find out more about their activities and publications.
See Also
Women Living With HIV at AIDS 2012 Part 1: The Greater Involvement of Women Living With HIV
More on HIV Treatment in the Developing World
More on Global HIV and Women

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Please note: Knowledge about HIV changes rapidly. Note the date of this summary's publication, and before treating patients or employing any therapies described in these materials, verify all information independently. If you are a patient, please consult a doctor or other medical professional before acting on any of the information presented in this summary. For a complete listing of our most recent conference coverage, click here.