'Flashing our briefs'
ATHENA and Link Up were privileged to participate in the HIV Prevention for Research (R4P) conference, which took place in Cape Town from 28 -31 October 2014. The conference was a first of its kind, bringing together previous conferences held on microbicides and vaccines. The organisers were not able to bring the Treatment as Prevention conference, organised by Julio Montaner into the fold, however, there were references to and discussions on treatment as prevention, as well as hormonal contraceptives and condom programming.
Young women's leadership initiative
The best thing about the conference was that the ATHENA Network organised a Young Women's Leadership Initiative (YWLI) programme under Link Up, in collaboration with AVAC. The process of organising the YWLI involved working with Link Up consortium partners to identify young women engaged in research projects that are relevant to the conference; supporting the young women to attend; ensuring they have clear objectives and responsibilities at the conference; holding briefings to share learning amongst the young women; and supporting them to feedback to their constituents when they return home. Why the focus on young women? We knew that there would be young men who have sex with men and young people who sell sex supported to attend the conference; and we also felt strongly that the voice of young women is key at this conference, especially as girls and young women are most affected by HIV in this region. Some are participants in the many clinical trials underway in the region. And equally importantly, some trials are taking place without the participation of young women.
The young women at the conference were from key Link Up partners in two African countries: Robinah and Flora from ICW East Africa (Uganda) and Nadia and Sandra from RNJ+ (Burundi). They were joined by two young women from Mpumalanga in South Africa supported by AVAC - Belinda and Nkwanda, involved in the ZAZI programme (young women's SRHR). And dynamic young activist Consolata Opiyo from ICW Global, based in Kenya, also joined the programme.
Young women & HIV prevention
As part of the YWLI at HIV R4P, the young women ‘took over’ the Advocates’ Corner for the day and hoisted a 'visible panty line' – a tool which ATHENA Network has developed to use in many organizing spaces, which we replicated at this conference in order to draw people to the Advocates' Corner and to engage them in dialogue. Often the panty line sparks conversations about issues affecting women at different stages of our lives and in all our diversity, on personal and political issues from sexual pleasure, to intimate hygiene, to gender based violence. Conference participants had fun with the panty line and were encouraged to leave messages on cut-out panties about young women and HIV prevention.
The young women also led a lunchtime session on young women and HIV prevention. The session was lively and well-attended with approximately 50 experienced advocates, researchers and policymakers. Young women talked openly about HIV prevention messages and strategies in their countries, and how these have evolved from A,B,C to more sophisticated, though often confusing, messaging and interventions. They called for a range of tools for young women - both young HIV-negative and HIV-positive women - that are suited to their realities and needs and that involve them in reaching out to their peers.
From our organisational perspectives, through our work on programmes such as Link Up, we definitely see the opportunity to engage with AVAC and other civil society on:
greater research literacy amongst trial participants, the communities around them and advocates, as well as greater community literacy among researchers and clinical scientists;
advocacy for high ethical standards in the participation of young women in clinical trials; and
ongoing consultation with young women about their realities, what they want and how they want to access existing and new commodities.
We would like to re-iterate how amazing it was to participate in the HIV Research for Prevention conference and to think ahead to future possibilities. We were appreciative of the incredibly dedicated advocates and researchers working to find new tools and options, especially for young women, who continue to be disproportionately affected by HIV in the region.
If you’d like to learn more about the conference and the latest on new prevention technologies, the AVAC website is a great source of information: http://www.avac.org/