Mali Youth Summit On HIV Round Up: What About HIV? Zero New Infections, Zero AIDS-Related Deaths & Zero Stigma and Discrimination. The Call To Action

Day 5: Closing Blog

So, it's the end of the Mali Youth Summit on HIV, and I'm off the plane; back in the UK - jetlagged, but inspired, tanned up and ready for action.

I went as a UK youth media representative and HIV activist, I return as part of a global movement. Not too shabby a deal.

What did I learn from the conference? If you've been following my daily blogs, the answer is, never enough.

Over 33 million people are living with HIV worldwide, 7000 new infections every day (3000 of those being in young people), over 10 million without access to HIV treatment. There is much great work happening around HIV prevention and justice (evidence supplied by my fellow youth ambassadors and the UNAIDS summit facilitators) - but with too many shortcomings past and present, there's still so much more that needs doing.

But having met and worked alongside some of the greatest minds and hearts at the summit, as well as already chowing down on endorsements from the likes of the President of Mali and the Executive Director of UNAIDS, Chinese TV presenter James Chau and even her Royal Highness Crown Princess Mette-Marit of Norway - I conclude with the belief there is terrific potential with the newly formed youth-led global network to frontline what is being called the 'HIV/AIDS response revolution'.

All you need to know is on the Call to Action, detailing every facet of how it’s going to be done.

The lethal dose to HIV injustice has been created – now it just needs to be injected – and it will be, right in the lap of the President of the General Assembly of the UN at the GA High Level Meeting on AIDS this June. Trust, if it were possible, I'd play delivery boy quite happily.

Though not to be overlooked - undoubtedly it was a challenging graft putting our key messages and demands together in this document (I would know, having sat on the drafting committee). With the branches of HIV injustice spreading far and wide, the drafts chipped and changed from the start of the summit last Friday April 15, to the final moments yesterday evening. Yet consider a hotpot of 150+ passionate and outspoken HIV activists from across around 70 nations – and the journey towards this mission statement (however rocky) was an inevitable, and necessary one.

Now this Call to Action is a momentous stepping stone, a call out to Heads of States, governments, all leaders, all those possessing the political and social power (and the wads of cash) – to make this investment, as HIV justice does not speak solely to the interest of key populations; young people who use drugs, young men who have sex with men, young people living with HIV, young transgender people and young sex workers. This public health revolution applies to ALL.

If you care about morality, then you care about HIV.

Zero new infections, zero AIDS-related deaths and zero stigma and discrimination. Can it be done? Sign up to the Call to Action at www.whatabouthiv.org - every revolution starts somewhere.


Mali UNAIDS Youth Summit On HIV - Day 4, Time In The Media Spotlight, Meeting A Norwegian Princess (And Finally A Bit Of Mali Life)

Struggling a bit with the heat and fatigue. When I look back at today, I think it’ll be a blur, but a fond fuzzy one at that.

More inspirational speeches, workshops and final touches to the ‘Call to Action’ document took up much of the Mali Youth Summit on HIV penultimate day – though unfortunately I missed chunks of the sessions; running around behind the scenes putting my own final touches to the ‘Traditional Media’ afternoon work group I was asked to facilitate.

What I did catch however was motivation talk at its best. Chinese TV presenter James Chau (CCTV News and World Wide Watch), lead on a few panel discussions – but the lively mood really boomed when he walked around the CIDB (Centre International des Conférences) conference room among the 150+ delegates for a ‘hot potato’ round; asking any youth leaders present to stand up and say one thing on the mic that they thought would aid this HIV social revolution.

There were voices from South Africa, China, Russia, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Botswana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria and several more (and I mean SEVERAL more – in the end James didn’t have to walk over to the raised hands, some eager activists just followed him around the room waiting for their shout). I heard everything from “Support young women against HIV stigma and abuse, protect those who will nurture our future”, to “Put funding in the right place, for the people that need it the most, and where we can make the biggest impact”, and more than one saying loud and proud, “This is up to us. We must take responsibility… This is our movement – so let’s take charge right here, right now.”

Then an unexpected cameo appearance - her Royal Highness Crown Princess Mette-Marit of Norway (pictured above with our photographer extraordinaire Kris Krug) stood up and stated her support for the HIV social revolution. I have little care for our own Royal Family, and to be honest, I couldn’t give a royal fanny about the Royal Wedding – but Princess Mette-Marit was of a different calibre at this conference; walking around the delegates preaching youth empowerment – renowned for being an engaging, warm speaking and on point youth ambassador for youth initiatives.

“We must mobilise the youth, have faith in our ability, and in our collaboration” said the Princess, adding “If the governments and local communities do not respond, do not wait, create your own networks and initiatives, work at it and make it so you cannot be ignored.”

Then it was my small media time to shine, given the task of explaining the ins and outs of press releases and op-eds, as well as building a strategic plan to push for youth-led media promotion of this summit’s Call to Action. With 5 other working groups happening simultaneously (others on activism, youth leadership, social networking, community engagement and building partnerships) I was happy to have just a concise group of 12 dedicated media players, up for harnessing the awareness and support of the Call to Action. With revolutionary reps and HIV activists from Egypt to Mexico, China and Togo, it was a dynamic media hub of resources geared up to make headlines on ground.

The end presentations were great (including one lead by awesome Tanzanian VJ/DJ starlet Vanessa Mdee - above left) and I hope that 2-hour network time will be a long-lasting one as we take our action plan forward. Yet one spot of realisation I must mention is perhaps a bad assumption generally; that it would be hard for some people at the summit to grasp a session on social media if they did not have readily available internet access, or training in modern media.

True story for some, false for others – a vital factor to consider regardless, and a point brought up already by Mauritian delegate Guffron Rostum yesterday.

However, nearing the end of my work group, Togolese delegate Afawoubo Komi Gagnon (below left) completely flipped perspectives on the issue concerning accessibility to media platforms. Nevermind Twitter (which he has), Facebook and other ‘modern’ social media, the 23 year old stated that when it comes to traditional media: “It will be very difficult in my country as remote areas often do not have TVs, or radio, or the literacy skills are too limited to read newspapers and magazines.”

But being a big media enthusiast eager to learn more about the various processes (which explained his sign up for my work group), we exchanged emails and arranged plans for me to mentor him part-time post conference.

No biggy.

Afawoubo - like with so many of the delegates at this summit - is stating the issues that need to be addressed and not forgotten; and it’s only a good thing to hear such a voice. After the launch of the Call to Action tomorrow (April 17), we must continue to consider the pitfalls and the strengths, and work on both. We should believe in success, but not fear failures – which can be remedied by this immerging global network. And there’s proof with Afawoubo becoming my latest colleague.

Note: It’s late now and my fingers are cramping up. It’s my last night in Mali before the closing tomorrow. I’m off, logging off – as I check out a Mali culture/HIV celebration night, do a little Mali dance, eat a little Mali food, live a bit of Mali life.

Credit: Kris Krug

Final update tomorrow + the official HIV/AIDS Call to Action.


Mali UNAIDS Youth Summit On HIV - Day 3, HIV, A Mauritian Encounter, The Drug Intervention, And The President Of Mali

The President of Mali walks in and the national anthem hits. The bustling room at Bamako's Centre International des Conférences bears witness to the first ever gathering of around 150 young HIV activists repping from 70+ nations. Though I struggle to mumble the words (of an anthem I don't understand), the pride is still there as President Amadou Toumani Touré stands on stage at the centre of a panel with the tagline backdrop banner stating: 'The emergence of a new generation of leaders against AIDS/HIV'. The Mali Global Summit on HIV is officially kickstarted.

I've been in Mali for two days now, and my forehead is sunburnt to a crisp, but that aside, today was awesome - and provided an unbelievable wealth of eye opening issues surrounding the HIV activism movement. Where the hell do I start...? Let's go back to the opening ceremony and panel.

There were a few highlights from the 2-3 hour welcoming session and overview. The stat thrown out that there are 7000 new infections of HIV every day (40% of those are young adults) resonated with every one in the room. There were a few spontaneous rallying outbursts from the audience; the delegates were hyped, locked and loaded to be the shotgun in the fight against HIV injustice.

Support was provided from all corners, including the President of the Republic of Gabon who sent a video message. President Ali Bongo Ondimba left us with: "We expect from our leaders of tomorrow to lead in the fight against HIV injustice which is breaking up families around the world."

Michel Sidibé (above left), the Mali-born Executive Director of UNAIDS, stepped up the gear in the auditorium; thrilled to host the summit in his home country. Michel touched upon the complex history of Mali, but spoke of the progress made since the election (and subsequent re-elections) of Mali President Amadou Tamani Toure, who came to power in 1991 "scaling the country... giving the minimal services for his people, bringing democracy to the country." Michel asked all to take note of what has happened in Mali, as well as how China has responded vigourously to HIV issues, what is happening in Tunisia, and in Egypt (on a political activism level) - and to realise such a social revolution was happening right here in Bamako.

"Over 10 million people around the world need not die because they can't get access to HIV treatment. We must work together to ensure the value of life is not different from Bamako to New York" Michel added. Speaking directly to the delegates he finished with, "You are not the leaders of tomorrow, you are the leaders of today. Let's facilitate places for HIV treatment, build concrete actions, make our societies more inclusive, and may sexual and HIV education be the vaccine."

Then it was the turn of President Toure (above and below), who made a promise to deliver the summit message and youth voice to the High Level summit in June. Toure spoke of empowerment: "We must and we will stand against any discrimination towards HIV. No longer will patients have to go to get their HIV treatment, the antiretrovirals should be delivered to them (free of charge). We will build upon the national fund for those fighting HIV/AIDS... And I encourage all the young people involved to be cautious, but vigilant - use your power to take care of yourselves now, and for the future."

With all this inspirational chit chat (plus the outstanding Mali music and dance entertainment - see below), it was almost easy to forget there was much work to do!

Working groups and process meetings took up the next few hours, providing action plans for the attendees evolved around youth leadership, access to information and HIV services (for key population high-risk areas in particular), laws and policies effecting stigma and discrimination, and HIV resources and funding. All of the information and feedback was compiled to form the final 'Call to Action' document (which I'll release on here on Sunday April 18). Right now, that document is being moderated by youth leaders repping and volunteering from 7 nations, before the final draft comes though to myself and the drafting committee tomorrow night (so no Mali clubbing as hoped for, I’ve got an all-nighter date with my good old laptop).

Pretty heavy stuff – I know. Right now I type this dreary eyed with beads of sweat running down my crispy forehead, with the veggie Chinese food I just ate weighing me down down into my pillow. All the whilst I’m trying to take this all in, and wonder (as with many I’ve spoken to) about the real impact, and outcome of this 3 day conference… Two presidents and an executive director have shown support and amped up the summit, but what about the youth leaders here who will lead the social movement? Soaked in humidity, but are they soaking up the content and vision of this event? I close this blog with the integral voices, two perspectives I found as the sun set on conference Day 1.

It was awesome to meet a delegate from my homeland, Mauritius. 24 year old Guffran Rostom (above left) who travelled up from Quatre Bornes, told me about his work as a HIV Prevention and Advocacy Officer for NGO, PILS (Prevention Information Et Lutte Contre Le SIDA); who focus on supporting vulnerable children in ‘informal’ schools with sexual education. Having not been back to Mauritius since 1999 I had no idea HIV was so prevalent there, but Guffran assured me his work and more support was needed in a small country of which 0.97% of the population have HIV (70% caused by infecting drug users i.e. transmission through dirty syringes). A drug intervention and harm reduction (by pushing medical centres to commit to replacing the dirty syringes with clean needles) needs a section in the HIV Call to Action plan Guffran affirms: “Over 10,000 people in Mauritius are using heroin… harm reduction, methadone substitutes and drug therapy will all help immensely in the fight against HIV.”

When asked about the summit overall, he called it a “great moment to create this global network of participation and activism.” But practically, we discussed a number of obvious challenges – such as the different levels of technology and access to (and knowledge of) social networks dependant on where you are in the world. And with that, there is the issue of the sheer quantity of regions and issues involved (which could cause conflicting priorities). These truths cannot be overlooked.

And that brings me onto my last interview of the day, with 19 year old Kenyan, Geoffrey Ochieng Gomba (above left) – who sees many great aspects of the summit, but hopes it won’t prove to be a complete waste of time. To be honest, it’s not in Geoffrey’s nature to be sitting around listening, he’s our modern day African Action Man. Born HIV positive, he’s always been a HIV activist, and has been working for a small initiative in Kenya protecting and supporting young women with HIV since the age of 11. His passion shines though: “There is never enough we can do. HIV is prevalent in 4.7% of women in Kenya, and with the discrimination and abuse some face – we need action now… It’s not even an issue of HIV sometimes, but an issue of morality, as women with or without HIV are getting maltreated. They need to be empowered now, and know their rights.” Though the atmosphere at this summit is buzzing, Geoffrey has no patience for politics, complications or slow compromise. “Life is too short” he says, with plans to go travel to every African nation and lead a charge for HIV/AIDS justice.

In my personal opinion, the political game inevitably plays a major factor in any global revolution.

Nevertheless, whatever Guffran and Geoffrey’s intentions are post conference, I do feel their apprehensions (however big or small) about the long-term impact are justified. At the same time, I can’t imagine any better people to input into this potential global movement and Call to Action.

From all the conversations I’ve had thus far, the fears and belief, criticisms and praise - who better than those passionate people on ground working with HIV issues to guarantee all areas are covered. That alone will keep this buzz going.

Credit: Photographer Kris Krug - for every awesome snapshot, except the last crappy ones I took on my phone.


Mali UNAIDS Youth Summit On HIV – Day 2, First Point Of Contact

So, somehow I’m now on the UNAIDS ‘Call for Action’ drafting committee… think it comes from sitting by the Massaley Hotel pool last night chit chatting with some awesome UNAIDS reps about their work, this Mali Youth Summit on HIV and what we all wanted to get out of it; a more just and facilitated global system for those living with HIV and AIDS. Now I’m throwing my two cence and more in…

Whilst the ‘Call for Action’ document (set to be published to the delegates and the world on Sunday April 18) is confidential and going through the track changes, I can deliver a teaser that it’s all about mobilising a global movement of young people to rally governments, civil societies, relevant organisations and each other to pump up the work surrounding HIV prevention, HIV education and stigma eradication – along with a mass of other branches that will contribute to various goals ahead of the High Level Summit in June.

How will it work? Who will plant the seeds of this massively important, yet daunting mission? A lot of those answers will come out of the summit, which starts tomorrow (April 15). And I have good reason for optimism. Aside from the obvious highlights – which include preparing to meet around 1000 HIV activists, plus a press conference with the President of Mali – today I got to meet and great just a handful of the inspirational young delegates.

It was by chance really, as I walked into a brief meeting with the bunch at the UNAIDS office in Bamako whilst trying to get a hold of my expenses (which are paying for my lush meals of omelette and salad – the best of the best on the veggie side of the menu). In the sweltering heat, I looked like a bit of a sweaty wreck upon interrupting the session, but it was smiles and handshakes all around as I exchanged introductions with social and HIV activists, youth ambassadors, entrepreneurs and peer educators from Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Mauritania, Canada and North America, Trinidad, Australia, China, Gambia, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Botswana, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and Namibia; each one stating how they were community and youth leaders setting up platforms for their people (regionally and now internationally) in the fight for HIV justice.

Credit: Photographer Kris Krug

And I repeat – this room was just a sprinkle from the buffet of amazing people I’ll be meeting, and working with over the next couple of days.

Much to look forward to. Stay tuned.


Mali UNAIDS Youth Summit On HIV - Day 1, The Plan

So, I’m on a plane at London Heathrow about to set off to Bamako, Mali...


Two weeks ago an unexpected email floated into my inbox from a woman at UNAIDS; inviting me to attend and facilitate a work group (on traditional media methods) at the Mali Youth Summit on HIV.

Crazy times.

But no time to mull over – 2 minutes later and I practically super-glued my spot at the conference; though I needed to know more about this spectacular event.

The guys at UNAIDS called me up and explained how this summit was a first, bringing together youth ambassadors and facilitators from across the world to network, discuss HIV/AIDS work, and collectively create a ‘Call to Action’ for people everywhere to get on board before the UNAIDS High Level Summit in June (8th to the 10th – falling ever so conveniently on my birthday)

This trip might as well be an early birthday gift though.

I’ve always been a passionate campaigner for HIV/AIDS rights. In 2008 I was part of the Ctrl.Alt.Shift team that carried out the ‘Nothing To Declare’ stunts; where we protested outside the South Korean, Saudi Arabian and Russian embassies in London against the nations’ HIV travel restrictions.

Note: The same Ctrl.Alt.Shift team produced 5 stunning award-winning short films on various social issues; one in particular was called ‘HIV: The Musical’; a satirical look at the shameful stigmas surrounding HIV and AIDS.

I’m also currently a ‘HIV Champion’ at Christian Aid, following and supporting the work of the organisation’s HIV unit.

But perhaps what drives me to care about this now manageable chronic disease (once considered a death sentence in the early 1990s), is my time witnessing HIV stigma first-hand during a reporting trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2008. I met dozens of HIV orphans, abandoned and discriminated against because of their HIV status.

I hate the term (and the ethos of) favouritism, but one boy, 17 year old Congolese football wonderkid Balamika, particularly struck me (with his story and rock hard feet).

He had been thrown out of his home in his early teen years for being HIV positive. He lived on raw mangos and rats, survived in the streets for years before being recruited and rehabilitated by a Christian Aid on-ground project; that taught him the basic communication skills, as well as how to drive and brick lay (opening up his very limited career options).

Tell Balamika’s story in the UK and we have a child services situation, perhaps a local media frenzy (especially if it were a cute defenceless middle class white girl in Balamika’s shoes). However, Balamika remained calm, reflective, and assured he could eventually produce a good life for himself. Nevertheless he still yearns to know why HIV turned him into the ‘black sheep’ of his community, and hopes that others will not have to experience such scarring traumas.

That was 2008. How far have we come? What more must we do? What are the bigger issues we must tackle when it comes to alleviating the lives of those with HIV/AIDS?

Well, 2011 marks the 30th anniversary since the first diagnosis of HIV, and my reading material for this journey towards Mali (and the 40 degrees that awaits me) tells me nearly 30 million people have died from AIDS, and globally over 33 million people are estimated to be living with HIV today.

Balamika is undoubtedly a needle in a global haystack, but the monumental figures aforementioned depict why HIV/AIDS is still our biggest public health challenge to date.

That is why the conversation needs to keep flowing as to how are we can educate people on HIV/AIDS; which includes contraception and prevention, beating the stigma, and how we can really push companies, governments and the public to back the HIV patent pool – in turn making antiretroviral (ARV) therapy and HIV treatment affordable for everyone (regardless of their age, race, class and location in the world).

Approximately 3 million people around the world are alive thanks to ARV treatment. It’s generally a successful process as after two years on the therapy, 8 out of 10 people who started it are still alive today.

Great. Yes?

Yet 10-15 million who need ARVs right now are simply unable to access them; meaning worldwide 2.5 people are infected by HIV for every person that begins treatment. There’s NOTHING right about that stat.

And so, this Mali youth summit and potential ‘Call to Action’ couldn’t have come at a better time. I look forward to seeing what juicy, innovative ideas my peers and I can conjure up – as I promise (more so than hope) that whatever we produce, it will slam a massive speed bump in the vicious circle that is HIV and AIDS injustice.

And we're off.