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ICASA opening ceremony recalls Mandela

“It’s in your hands.” The urgent appeal once voiced by Nelson Mandela was echoed at the opening of ICASA in Cape Town on 7 December.

Presenters at the ICASA opening ceremony poured affectionate accolades on the iconic and much-loved South African leader, who died on 5 December, and remembered his tireless efforts to fight AIDS.

Urging conference attendees not to give up on the struggle, renowned singer and veteran AIDS activist Annie Lennox said Mandela’s legacy was not “a static piece of history” and should never be relegated to such.

“‘It’s in your hands,’ Mandela said years ago before he retired from public life. It’s easy to stand on the shoulders of giants but what have I done to make a difference?” asked Lennox.

Another quote of Mandela’s was echoed: “AIDS is no longer just a disease. It is a human rights issue.” Recalling Mandela’s famous words, the co-chair of ICASA, Prof. Ian Sanne, warned that much more work remained to be done. He said: “We need to pay attention that gains made to date are not lost because of declining funding.”

The conference’s official opening was attractive and appealing and the memory of Mandela’s words made it more special. Ultimately, however, nothing really new was said. One of the AJAN representatives at ICASA, Time Baluwa from Zimbabwe, said: “So far it’s just more of the same: statistics, appeals for funding and encouraging people to continue the struggle. All this we are used to, we want something new and this is lacking. I wonder if it will be there in the coming days, some more profoundness and depth we can look forward to.”

In the usual conference tradition, the presenters highlighted the lights and shadows of the AIDS struggle. Host country South Africa was cited as a success story, with a rate of mother-to-child transmission of HIV that has plunged to below 3.5% and 2.4 million people on ART, a treatment initiative that is funded 80% by the country itself. South Africa has 5.6 million people living with HIV, more than anywhere else in the world.

The president of the AIDS Society in Africa, also ICASA co-chair, Prof. Robert Soudre, praised South Africa for being an “excellent example” of the Abuja Declaration – in which African governments pledged to devote 15% of their budgets to healthcare – and expressed the hope that other governments will follow its example.

At the same time, the presenters drew attention to the considerable challenges still standing in the way of achieving a sustained response to AIDS that guarantees universal access to care and treatment for all who need, regardless of who they are. There were calls to focus on marginalised communities, to openness and inclusiveness for universal access.

The most updated statistics were presented. While an impressive 9.7 million people in low- and middle-income countries were receiving antiretroviral therapy (ART) at the end of 2012, an increase of 1.6 million over 2011, this statistic represented only 61% of all those eligible for this treatment as per the WHO 2010 guidelines (this percentage drops to 34% if we consider the WHO 2013 guidelines).

Another pervasive problem to be highlighted was violence against women. There were strong calls to stop such violence, with reference to rape, traditions like early marriage and myths such as sleeping with a virgin to be cured from AIDS. With 1000 women newly infected with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa every day, it is small wonder that one presenter said: “HIV/AIDS still wears the face of a woman.”

Discussing the opening speeches later, the AJAN group agreed wholeheartedly with the need to protect women and promote their equality and rights. However, they voiced concern about focusing too exclusively on women to the detriment of men and the relationship between the two.

“When we say ‘focus on women’, where are the men? It has to be mutual,” said Time. “I felt the speeches to be polarised towards women. We’re not saying don’t focus on women but give the same attention to men as you do to women.”

Désiré Yamuremye SJ from Burundi went one step further: “Target the family. Can you achieve family planning – whatever method you use – without involving the man? Whatever you have to say, tell it to the family. Whatever you want to achieve, target the family.”

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