XV International AIDS Conference: Report From a Peace Corps Worker
The XV International AIDS Conference in Bangkok was broken down into three different organizing committees: Scientific program, Leadership program and Community program. The different seminars, workshops and other programming fit into one or more of the different committee bodies. The latter of the three is where I spent most of my energy and time because not only was I working directly with the community program projects but they also related more directly to my current activities at my site.
The Community Program committee was responsible for organizing the community gathering, the empowering visit program, the Global Village, the Silabha Art and Cultural Program, youth activities as well as the PHA (People with AIDS) Lounge. The PHA Lounge was the main activity I was involved in and also the most valuable part of the conference for me, which I will extrapolate on later.
One of the main differences of the International AIDS Conference from other international health conferences is that many of the delegates, leaders, performers and scientists are living with the health topic being discussed. Working at the PHA Lounge was an amazing opportunity to get to know many people working on the forefront of this epidemic personally.
While at the Conference I tried to keep my focus attuned to AIDS topics related to Asia, specifically Thailand. Luckily there were three groups from Thailand that were very vocal and focal: The Thai Drug User's Network, Empower Sex Workers and Thai Youth Action Programs. Each group also represents important themes that were in many different sessions about AIDS in both Asia and other countries.
At the Conference there were many different Youth forums and the youth made their point very clearly: The youth need to play a larger part in the decision making bodies on AIDS/HIV issues for they are the ones "at risk" and living with HIV/AIDS. The youth showed unity, enthusiasm and intelligence in articulating the direction they want HIV/AIDS work to move into. Although youth assertion and empowerment challenges society widely it is even more of a challenge in Thailand which has a more hierarchical society and youth are often not listened to in policy-making decisions. I felt proud and optimistic being a youth with the amount of activity and energy the Youth Program displayed during this conference. The youth is where the epidemic of AIDS will either expand or descend and it is up to us, our actions, our knowledge and what we can share with each other.
Kun Paisan Sawannawong from the Thai Drug User's Network had a prominent voice during the conference. He challenged Nayoke Thaksin and his government to not wage war on drug users but to provide assistance and support. Kun Paisan called for needle exchange programs, comprehensive addiction treatment services and antiretroviral treatment for HIV positive drug users. The importance in Thailand for providing clean needles and assistance for drug users was emphasized by recent epidemic trends in HIV prevention and care. In Thailand, the intravenous drug users have the highest percentage of spreading the virus.
Kofi Annan in his opening address stressed the importance of focusing on women and girls living with AIDS and HIV. Throughout the conference the importance of empowering women was an important theme, including the empowerment of sex workers. The empowering of sex workers is especially important in Asian countries where a larger percentage of males visit sex workers. During this conference I learned how deep and dense the topic on sex workers is but in brief sex workers need to be able to tell their clients that they must wear a condom. When looking at the trends of the spread of HIV in Thailand the highest rate is currently among IDUs, however, in the long term trends it quickly switches over to sex workers and their clients. The IDU group which is a relatively small and isolated group intermixes with sex workers group and their clients which is a much larger group is able to spread the virus to a much larger percentage of people. In Ubon, one of my friends is beginning a project in which they talk to the owners of sex brothels as well as the workers in trying to empower the workers as well as make it mandatory for clients to wear condoms.
The HIV/AIDS epidemic is clearly not limited to one specific group and there can not be one answer to cure it. If there was there would not have been a XV International AIDS Conference with people from all over the world, from all different groups representing. There were so many amazing speakers and groups at this conference that to even try to begin to expand on all of them would make the 362 page final program look like a short story, but to be a part of so much passion, energy, and collaboration was incredibly inspiring.
I plan on using the energy spurred on from the conference and continue to expand my work with HIV/AIDS at my site. I have a training of trainers' camp on HIV/AIDS awareness on my health clinic after the conference. The camp will be for 20 students who are about to move into their final year of high school. I will use two videos that I received from the conference as well as inform the students about information on HIV/AIDS trends in Thailand. In addition, I met several people working in NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and GOs (governmental organizations) in Ubon and I am hoping to collaborate with them after the conference.
In addition, I have already talked to the doctors in my community about my experience on the conference and shared with them pictures, stories and brochures. We are currently in the process of figuring out what the best next step in working HIV/AIDS should be in our community. Plus, indirectly, several of the community members in my village were glued to the television news about the AIDS conference trying to see if I was going to be on television or not. And although that is a little silly, I think just me going to the international conference on HIV and AIDS and telling all the people in my community, spurred more discussion and awareness than anything else I could have done.
While at the conference I realized that as Peace Corps volunteers we are able to make a huge difference with HIV/ AIDS awareness because we work directly at the grassroots level. There are so many great NGOs in Thailand working on HIV/AIDS issues but as in all organizations there are limits that they face. As Peace Corps volunteers in our villages we can easily change villagers' views on HIV/AIDS by going to a conference on HIV/AIDS. By participating in the local PHA group, by encouraging people to check out the AIDS hospice in Lopburi or simply by having dinner at someone's house. Since we are working in such a influential area it is important that as volunteers we have accurate information as well. I think the GIG and Peace Corps can help provide volunteers with informative facts and knowledge about HIV/AIDS in both Thai and English.
I also think that collaborating with some of the NGOs and GOs that are doing amazing stuff in our province is a great use of Peace Corps strengths as well as the strengths of the other organizations. As a single volunteer we face many limits to what we can do and I can think we can strengthen what we do with different collaborations with other organizations. I included below a short list of contacts in the Issan area and I think that providing contacts for NGOs and GOs working with AIDS in different regions could also be something helpful that GIG could do.
Despite all the amazing organizations from IAS (International AIDS Society), UNICEF, to smaller in-country organizations and all the amazing world leaders, such as, her excellency Sonja Ghandi, his excellency Nelson Mandela, to a few movie stars who graced the XV International AIDS Conference with their presence, it was the simple and small interactions with the community members and the delegates that will leave a everlasting impression on me.
Working at the PHA Lounge gave me an amazing opportunity to greet, meet and listen to people who are living with HIV/AIDS and fighting the epidemic. By volunteering there I was able to enter into one of the most supportive and loving communities I have ever seen. What I will remember most from the conference is sitting at the lounge and just opening my ears and having so many people open their hearts to me and share anything and everything. I will remember walking down the halls of the crowded conference and sharing handshakes, hugs and smiles from my new friends at the conference. I will remember my friend that gave me the book, "Thoughts From the Seat of the Soul," when we said goodbye to each other. I will remember the wonderful people from the Thai Network of People living with AIDS that I worked with at the PHA Lounge. I will remember the different people I danced with to rhythms from around the world after the parade down Bangkok. These are the things that stuck out most to me and that were the most valuable part of the Conference. It is the humanity and the love that we share that should always be the most valuable part of any Conference including, the XV International AIDS Conference. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to partake in it and I hope that I can convey a little bit of the information and love I received from the Conference as well.
This article was provided by Wyoming: Positives for Positives. It is a part of the publication Positives for Positives.