The International AIDS Conference 2016: Looking Back

This blog post was written by youth advocate Anna Szczegielniak, a medical doctor from Poland and member of the Board of Directors of the Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights.

A failed attempt to translate meaningful youth participation from empty words to long awaited practice.

The International AIDS Conference in Durban ended with the applause of thousands of participants representing various groups and united by a common goal. Once again researchers, health providers, young advocates, civil society, governmental representatives and volunteers gathered in one place for 5 days to work tirelessly towards change, strengthening existing networks and creating new bonds, showcasing as many stories of success as possible, and to deliberate on issues that are still a challenge for us in order to come up with unique solutions, even better treatment programs, tailored-to-the-needs preventive care, and more efficient advocacy strategies. Young people had been given their own space to present their work: vibrant, colorful, progressive, built by youth and for youth. The Global Village, open to all visitors, was the heart and the soul of the conference, echoing the diversity of the world. With the theme “Access equity rights now”, we were called to unite to overcome injustices and work together to reach the people who still lack access to comprehensive care. With a little help of the glittering big names, attracting the attention of journalists, the 21st International AIDS Conference was deemed a great success. Media reports competed to report on the elaborate speeches that came from the main stage, marveling at the invited speakers and leaders of the HIV movement.

But was it really the next great step?

At the opening ceremony, movie star Charlize Theron said: “(…) It is typical, when invited to speak at a conference, to begin by saying, ‘I am honored and grateful to be here.’ And I am grateful to be given a chance to speak, and to be here with such an esteemed group.  But if I’m being honest with myself, and with you, I am also sad to be here at the 21st International AIDS Conference. This is the second time my home country of South Africa has hosted. That’s not an honor. That’s not something we should be proud of. We shouldn’t have had to host this conference again.”

Full of enthusiasm before the event, I’ve never given much thought to the fact that our biennial meeting is in practice a celebration of failure; The failure of the whole HIV movement, which struggles to address the needs of those living with HIV and AIDS, leaving people to deal alone with discrimination, stigmatization and harmful stereotypes. How could we be so blind that for the last couple of years we have been unable to be honest with ourselves and realize that as long as we organize parades and events full of glitter and glam, there is very little space for those who bear the truth?

Thanks to Theron’s words I’ve also been able to look at youth participation from a different angle. Do we really know how to learn from the lessons we’ve been previously taught? Young people must be involved in all stages of any youth-centered initiative, program or policy and supported by accurate, youth-friendly information, intergenerational dialogue and a decent amount of respect and trust. Yes, we’re all tired of being a key theme at every high-level meeting instead of being the leaders, but what have we done to take up the leading role? The main program of the Durban conference was diverse and well-balanced, providing much needed space for young people to discuss all the important issues. But at the same time, during the panel discussion led by young people on meaningful youth participation, we preached to the choir, citing the numerous examples of tokenism, decoration and even manipulation that we’d experienced in Durban, while in the corridors of the main venue participants were proudly exchanging opinions on how young people are taking over Durban. How is it possible that after so many years of us being present in these international spaces that our message still does not get across?

A plane ticket does not equal a voice for youth

It’s been over a month since I came back from AIDS 2016. The excitement is wearing off, lively discussions and ambitious plans are fading from my memory, and regular life is setting in. In my community, in a small city in Poland, there are no signs of the promised positive change and innovation that we discussed in Durban. In fact, we barely have time to keep up with basic responsibilities as healthcare providers, struggling with not enough funds and an unsupportive government. It is here, back in my day-to-day life, that I ask myself: why is that young people have never been given enough support to develop the skills that would allow us to translate the opportunities offered by the AIDS conference to actions in our own communities? It’s time to say it loud and clear: buying a flight ticket doesn’t ensure meaningful participation! Having a youth zone is nice, but why are our voices not welcomed in the main venue? And why are we still treated as decorations at opening ceremonies? Now is the time to call for a change.

Do I believe Durban will be the last AIDS conference? No, I don’t. Do I believe we can actually reach our aim and make it to a point in which there will no longer be a need to organize such a conference? Yes, I do. The conference brought up many questions and now it’s up to the new generation of young leaders to find the answers. And this starts with demanding that youth representation and young people’s voices are truly represented and amplified in these spaces.

Goodbye to GYCA

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This year’s AIDS Conference was, for me, a bittersweet goodbye to the Global Youth Coalition on HIV/AIDS, (GYCA) an organization for which I served as the Eastern Europe & Central Asia Regional Focal Point for more than 3 years. I remember even now, sending in my application. I was intimidated by the esteem of the organization, impressed by the number of projects conducted by members of the network, and amazed by the quality of their e-courses, focusing on project management, grant writing, and political advocacy. Prior to GYCA I mostly worked at the community level, leading a nationwide project called “Streetcar Called Desire” sponsored by MTV’s Staying Alive Foundation. I did not have experience in advocacy of any kind. With GYCA though, I was offered exciting opportunities, access to high-level meetings and scientific conferences, and a wealth of learning as an advocate. This is not to mention the huge networking GYCA exposed me to, connecting me with regional youth-led and youth-focused organizations across my region. It wasn’t always easy to juggle all the responsibilities, but thanks to this specific mixture of pleasure and pain that volunteers are familiar with, GYCA helped me to grow both as an advocate and a person.

The official closure of GYCA marks the end of an era and of a strong international movement that led the youth AIDS response in the early 2000s. The young leaders driving the change have aged out and funds that helped to ensure the sustainability of global advocacy networks have been shifted from the international level towards community-led initiatives. I strongly believe in the value of supporting the new generation of grassroots advocates –those keeping the needs of their communities close to their hearts is a breath of fresh air into the musty rooms of the United Nations. These young people are the ones shirking rigid conference etiquette, looking for new paths with their heads up, and not playing along with the tokenism and manipulation most young people face in global spaces. The question is, how can we preserve the institutional knowledge of these well-established international youth led and youth-focused organizations and help guide the paths of the new generation of advocates?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I do know one thing: We cannot afford to wait, nor can we continue to pass on this responsibility to the “next generation”. If not us, then who? If not now, then when?