The panty line is definitely visible now. It’s held aloft, dancing through the streets of Vienna to samba beats, surrounded by banners, balloons and placards. And women. Women from all over in the world, speaking every language, from different backgrounds and a diverse mix of experiences. Yet despite our differences, we are united in what we demand: women’s rights. Rights here, right now.
We are part of the March and Rally for Human Rights at AIDS2010. It is not my first protest. I have been a human rights activist for ten years, and have marched for many different issues in that time. This is, though, the first time I have organised and marched with women, as part of a women’s movement. It is an incredible and inspiring experience. Of course, I have always known the power of women, but this is the first time I have really seen it in action.
Marching to the beat and the chants, the power we represent together is palpable, almost overwhelming. We march to a chant led by Amandine, a woman with a powerful and seemingly indestructible voice: walk, walk, walk your talk, women’s rights. Rights here, right now, women’s rights. On women’s rights we collectively pause our walking and wiggle our hips, the panties and bras on our panty line and banners wiggling with us. It must be quite a sight, and it’s an amazing feeling to see feminism celebrating femininity, and each woman among us celebrating herself, her own body and sexuality.
This human rights march is also my first HIV protest, though I have been working in this field for a few years now. I’m struck by the diversity of identities represented in the march and the range of issues pushed forward. Our contingent from the Women’s Networking Zone is joined by people calling for rights for sex workers, injecting drug users and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities. Protestors are calling for universal access to treatment, for young people to be given adequate, comprehensive sex education. One male protester memorably demands: ‘Bill Gates, keep your hands off our foreskins´.
This diversity of demands and demanders really brings home to me the value and the power of human rights as the theme of this year’s conference. Across this spectrum of difference we are united in and through universal human rights as a language of demand and a shared aim. Putting human rights at the centre of the response to HIV and AIDS is the only way to truly tackle the pandemic, and satisfy the riot of demands made in this march.
I’m in the front of the women’s group in the march, one quarter of the womanpower carrying the banner of the Women’s Networking Zone. The others are Luisa from the UK, Oriana from Mexico and Sabine from Austria. We’re a pretty mixed bunch. The protesters gather in Svhottentor and march to Heldenplatz, where we hear speakers including human rights activists, HIV advocates and government leaders, and are treated to a special performance from Annie Lennox. Along the protest route, Viennese locals line the streets to watch. They seem to be enjoying it, but not nearly so much as the participants in the march, who are truly joyous in their celebrations of how far we’ve come, and hopefulness for what together we can achieve in the future.
The march marked the coming together of the all the activists participating in AIDS2010, as the Conference approaches its halfway point. We’re also approaching the halfway point for the Women’s Networking Zone in Vienna. It’s strange to think that in a couple more days the panty line will come down and the zone will be dismantled. By the weekend the zone itself will be gone. But those of us who have been fortunate enough to participate in it will go home inspired, informed and reinvigorated to continue our struggles. I have been lucky enough to have the best seat in the house for most of the week: the technical desk, where I have been able to listen to and learn from the many different sessions that the zone has hosted. What have I learned? That we have won many battles but the war is far from over. That by uniting across borders we reinforce our movement. That women have capacity beyond anything any project can ‘build’. That women together are not just stronger but unstoppable. That women can. That women will. And that I will always be proud that a pair of my panties (white with blue polka dots) spent a week flying high from a line in Vienna.