It is not an honour to host the 21st international AIDS conference, because we should have eliminated HIV by now, actress Charlize Theron told delegates at the opening of the AIDS conference in Durban last night.
“I am sad to be here at 21st international AIDS conference. This is the second time that South Africa has hosted this conference, and it is not an honour,” said Theron.
“We shouldn’t have had to host it again. Countless people would have died without your dedication but it is time to acknowledge that something is terribly wrong. The truth is we have every tool to prevent spread of HIV, from condoms, to PEP [post-exposure prophylaxis], pre-exposure prophylaxis and anti-retrovirals.
“In South Africa alone, 180,000 died of AIDS last year, and more than 2.2million children have been orphaned. Why haven’t we beaten this epidemic? It is time to acknowledge one simple fact: we value some lives more than others; we value men more women, straight love more than gay love, white lives more than black lives, adults more adolescents. We single out the vulnerable, ignore them, let them suffer then let them die.
“HIV is also transmitted by sexism, racism and homophobia.”
Theron appealed to delegates to “connect with young people” because it is “not our generation that will end AIDS: “The solution is not in laboratories, but in communities and streets. If we support our young people, take time to listen and empower them, they will end this epidemic.”
Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa said it was fitting that the conference was opening on Nelson Mandela day, which was dedicated to service and the betterment of the human condition.
“In the year 2000 [at the last AIDS conference hosted in Durban], Nelson Mandela expressed his deep pain at the devastating effect of the AIDS epidemic,” said Ramaphosa.
“We have all been touched by this epidemic. Families have been torn apart. This epidemic has had a devastating effect on countries around the world… but the struggle to end AIDS has changed us. It has provoked a sense of international solidarity and a sense of common purpose. It has made us confront our prejudices.”
In a touching show of solidarity, conference co-chairs Chris Beyrer – a gay man – appealed to the gay community to “end the separation and stand with our sisters to fight against gender inequality” while Olive Shisana – an African woman – called on “my sisters to stand with the LGBTI community to end discrimination”.
Professor Shisana said South Africa had made great progress, reducing AIDS deaths from 370,000 in 2006 to 170,000 and mother-to-child transmission from 18,000 to less than 5000.
“But funding is becoming a concern,” says Shisana. “We must demand full funding for the Global Fund. We have lost momentum for HIV prevention. Black people bear the brunt of HIV, with more than 58 percent of people living with HIV globally.”
Professor Beyrer said that while significant progress had been made against AIDS, it is “too soon to claim victory”: “This is the first year that there is a measureable decline in donor funds. We need full funding for Global Fund, funding for civil society and the research mission to maybe get cure, preventative vaccine.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, speaking via video message, praised delegates for their dedication and appealed for end to discrimination against the poor, who were most vulnerable to HIV.
Zimbabwean activist Martha Tholanah was awarded the Elizabeth Taylor Human Rights
Award for her work on behalf of women, people living with HIV, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
“For her efforts to protect human rights, and prevent injustices such as forced sterilization, Tholanah has and continues to face incarceration and legal sanctions in Zimbabwe,” according to the International AIDS Council.
In accepting the award, Tholanah said she was “one of millions of civil society activists” against whom governments were “using discriminatory legal structures, smear campaigns and violent attacks”. – Health-e News