The International AIDS Conference - Washington DC, 22-27 July 2012

Sister Machi Shigehisa and Mr. Masaki Ohgama from the Japan HIV Center
All photos by Bonnie Kearney, rscj

Six college students participating in the Sacred Heart Internship Program (SHIP) attended the XIX International AIDS Conference held in Washington, DC from July 22-27, 2012. The week before we went, we spent time trying to read through the incredibly full schedule of sessions, workshops, tours, booths, and presentations in the Global Village and in the Youth pavilion.  Also as preparation, we asked whether any of us knew someone with HIV or AIDS. Did the interns know, for example, who Ryan White was? 

We were not the only RSCJ group at the Conference; Sr. Machi Shigehisa, from Japan, was there with her agency. The CEDC also offered hospitality to four people from the Cabrini Mission in Swaziland.   

The conference was overwhelming – there were almost 24,000 participants from 183 countries! We embarked on a journey into a part of our world which had not been in our sightline, and so what follows are little windows into moments that had a strong impact on us. 

I went to several events in the Youth Pavilion, including a youth-written and produced play called “Pulled Apart,” based on all the issues that pull them apart from society: the woman in their church who was isolated when someone talked about her illness, the school system that never addressed sexual health issues till 11th grade, the gay friend pushed aside by family, school, friends. It also attempted to engage the audience in searching through the experiences toward change.  

The Pavilion had several panels on Young People Leading the Fight against HIV/AIDs. Speakers ranged from Ronnie Cho, the White House Liaison to Young Americans, to Kikelomo Adetutu Talwo, a youth leader in Nigeria. One panel, made up of young people who had been infected from birth, or who were gay or transgender, spoke about the issue of disclosure in schools or workplace. If parents have adopted infected children, should they disclose for their children, or does that choice belong to the child? Throughout, it was clear that stigma is a major factor. 

Young people also spoke to the reality that because the media often ignore their stories, they are telling them through Facebook, Twitter … all the new means of social communication. Equally important, they were asking that adults give over some of their power and share it with youth leadership. 

Another targeted group was women. The National Black Leadership Conference on AIDS presented a 20-minute video documentary aimed at professional women, a group that might be left out of the conversation. What came across is the strength of women, their creative approaches, and their willingness to speak up and out and take action. The DVD is an educational tool designed to stimulate discussion in homes, schools, faith-communities, etc.

Presentations considered not just physical health, but the psychosocial, cultural, religious, familial, patriarchal, legal aspects of HIV/AIDS. When we shared, for example, with four from Swaziland this became even clearer. Here, men might have six or seven wives; none of the women felt free to be tested lest they be ostracized and removed from the family with nowhere to go. Thus, even though people are dying, the stigma and silence persist.

Stigma ran through every kind of presentation. Stigma makes for silence and for secrets.  It affects young and old, male and female, gay, transgender, rural and urban. Various religions approach AIDS differently. We saw one full length documentary, “The Gospel of Healing: Black Churches Respond to HIV/AIDS,” (, which offered five models for how communities have organized to address this issue in their communities. At one point they noted that with Jesus, over and over again, boundaries were broken as he touched, blessed and did not judge. So the communities of today must move beyond their discomfort with certain behaviors, not necessarily approving of them, but reaching out to the person. (When one attendee remarked that people would not have these problems if they lived by the Bible’s teachings, there was no argument: rather, the young people simply said that this was the world they found themselves in, and they needed to find ways to make it open, hoping that people will reach out to their brothers and sisters in need.)

Beyond the health issues are the human rights issues. There was a strong call for UNAIDS to continue its partnership with civil society, for technical and financial support to civil society, for the commitment and accountability of governments. What is learned and practiced locally by civil society is essential to an understanding of the issues at the grass roots. 

Certainly there were “stars” at the Conference who lent their name recognition to the cause – Elton John, Bill Gates, Hillary and Bill Clinton, Laura Bush – but most impressive to me were the hundreds of volunteers, NGO’s, agencies which were the ground from which the conference shouted its message. Progress has been made; it is not enough.  The quilt continues to grow, science faces new issues of drug resistance, women and children continue to be a growing affected population and one in need of a much stronger voice and place at the table.

For further information, there are two extraordinary websites:
1.  The Conference Program’s website
2.  UNAIDS – The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS

Bonnie Kearney, rscj
Province of USA
August 2012