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The XVII International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2008)
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African Immigrants and HIV/AIDS in Canada

An Interview With Diana Wiwa

August 8, 2008

My name Diana Wiwa. I work with the African and Caribbean Council on HIV/AIDS in Ontario [ACCHO].

What was the highlight of the conference?

For me, it was just to see the amount of information and activity happening around the world around the issue of AIDS. Making the linkages with other organizations that are in the same field with you and doing the same kind of work you are doing. Learning from them, comparing reports, seeing how they do their work, and learning lessons we can also take home to use.

What did you learn that you didn't know before?

I'm actually based in Canada, you don't always get the sense that AIDS is a major issue for a lot of nations especially in the developing world. The focus is not always on North America per se because it's seen as if the number of people comparatively is low.

To me, the greatest heartening thing I found here was that HIV is a big issue in many parts of the world and people are actually doing some work on it. There's a lot more needed to be done, but that people are focused on finding a cure for this disease.

Tell me a little bit about the situation for African immigrants in Canada.

As I said, in Canada -- which is a case in a lot of North America -- there is a false sense that AIDS may not be a major issue. A lot of immigrants come to the country feeling that once they've reached Canada or the United States, that AIDS is no longer a problem. The focus on it, the education they were having back in Africa where they came from is not there. They assume it's not a problem, so they're getting infected. A lot are coming into Canada without the infection, but they are getting infected while they are there.

Part of our work is to try and raise their awareness that AIDS is still an issue in Canada and the U.S., and that the immigrant community, which is usually the least provided for needs to be faced. The resources need to be provided for them for the education to be, treatment that they need and the cultural-sensitive treatment that they require, so that this scourge can be ended.

In the African immigrant community, how is homosexuality treated? How is addressed from an HIV prevention perspective?

Homosexuality is still a very difficult subject to talk about in a lot of the immigrant communities in North America. In many of them, it's the first time they have an opportunity to discuss it, when they come into the North American public.

Also part of our education is to try and work through the homophobia that does exist in especially the African and Caribbean communities. Most of those who are seen as homosexuals get even less treatment, get less access to what is available for them.


As I said, there's a lot of homophobia in the culture.

So they're afraid to come forward?

They're afraid to come forward to access for fear of being identified as such and then being abused because of it. A lot of them are not coming out to access what is available. Also, they're afraid of losing family members or being ostracized by the community.

There are a lot of issues around homophobia still within that community. Part of what I also got at this conference is ideas or ways that we can work, begin to introduce a discussion to reach them where they are at their level of understanding on this AIDS issue and homosexuality, and build from there.

What are some of the things that your group has done to address this issue?

We've done a lot of community-relevant programs. They could be plays. Sometimes it's just providing an environment for people to come, parents to come and discuss. The issue may not even necessarily be AIDS or homosexuality. It could just be how to raise your children in a North American environment, and insert the discussion on AIDS and homosexuality within those discussions.

At least, in that sort of setting, they're a little more receptive of the information. It's going through the subjects that are relevant to them at that point and begin to make them see the relevance of these other subjects within those contexts and make those linkages quick.

What are the characteristics of the African immigrant community in Canada? Where are they from?

A lot of them come from Kenya, a lot of Nigerians, and South Africans. Although, a good chunk of the African population that's coming to Canada are actually white Africans. There are also those issues in trying to design our services to meet the needs of each of the individual communities that are coming in.

What do you think is the issue that is not being addressed in order to fight HIV? What do you think is the biggest issue that people are not paying attention to?

In this kind of conference, a lot of the issues are being -- I mean, this is a conference of "Pay attention to the issues!" Talking with a lot of my colleagues here, and from our own experience, I think one of the key issues that is not really being looked into is treatment, and the issues of co-infection with, especially the diseases not common anymore in developed countries, tuberculosis, [etc].

Actually, finding a treatment to invest in that is not necessarily the context of this conference, but within the context of the broader AIDS work out there. My sense of it is that not enough investment is being put into finding a cure for this disease and to look at issues of poverty and marginalization, which is a very big issue about how people can contract the disease.

I feel more should be done, especially from government point of view. I think this conference has given an opportunity for NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), to make the much needed linkages that are needed to fight this battle, but very rarely have the resources to do so. There's a lot of issue about the money you spend organizing such conferences like this, but it does provide an avenue for a discussion that is much needed.

Do you think we're any close to fighting and ending homophobia?

I'd like to believe so. If not, this conference is a way of time. [laughs] I am hopeful. I like to believe that conferences like this, they're very snail-paced in actually changing things, but they definitely create an environment for a broad discussion. A very broad discussion. Even though you may have come several times, you always go away with something.

To me, I do believe we are heading towards a better understanding. Where we are today is not where we were 10 years ago. It's not where we were 20 years ago. I'm one of those that are optimistic, that, "yes, are getting closer." It's slow, but I think we are.

In 100 years, imagine there'll be a cure for HIV. What will they say about this time and how people acted and the stigma and discrimination?

With hindsight, you always tend to be a lot more critical. I'm sure there'll be a lot of questions about how much we invested in doing this work. If we do now about what happened 100 years ago, I think with hindsight, of course, you will have 20/20 vision. You see the mistakes that were made, the opportunities that were missed, the challenges that were not taken on. To me, for us, in our time, I do think there's more we could do, but I also think that we have done a lot. I do think it'll be a mixed review 100 years from now.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

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This article was provided by TheBodyPRO. It is a part of the publication The XVII International AIDS Conference.
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