As a part of the Women’s Networking Zone (WNZ) at the International AIDS Conference currently being held in Vienna, I have spent the week surrounded by a community of women. I was involved with coordinating the first WNZ at the 2006 International AIDS Conference in Toronto, and over the past four years I have seen the WNZ grow in size and weight. The WNZ is a comfortable and welcoming space for me, but as soon as I step outside, I wonder what my place is within the larger conference.
At the Human Rights March and Rally earlier this week, many of us involved in the WNZ gathered together to march under the slogan “Women’s Rights Here, Right Now.” During the march our leader continuously rallied us to chant by shouting “Women, are you here?” to which we responded with a resounding “Yes!” As I move through the Conference outside the WNZ, I sometimes find myself wondering if the women are here. I see many women moving through the halls and a number of women’s issues on the program, but there are too many ways in which women are invisible. I ran into a friend the other day, for example, who complained that she had attended a panel on funding for HIV prevention and treatment that did not include a single woman. Today I passed a session in the Global Village on prevention of mother-to-child transmission for the elimination of paediatric HIV. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find a session on the program (if there are any at all) that addresses the treatment needs of mothers and not their children.
So, while we raise our voices during rallies and support each other in the WNZ, while men like Michel Sidibe and Stephen Lewis advocate for women to be at the centre of the HIV and AIDS agenda, and while women make up the majority of the population with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa, we continue to be secondary. As a relatively young woman working to promote gender equity in the global response to HIV and AIDS, it is all too sobering to see how much work is left to be done, even after all that my older colleagues have done to move the women’s agenda forward. So yes, the women are here and we are shouting, but no one seems to be listening.