The 17th International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA) officially opened yesterday on a very sombre note as the world mourns and celebrates the life of global icon and former South African president Nelson Mandela who died Thursday, December 5. More than 7,000 delegates from all over the world observed a minute of silence in his honor at the start of the opening session.
While some worried the conference may be cancelled, there could be no better way to celebrate Mandela’s legacy than by continuing to host ICASA and address the global HIV and AIDS epidemic. In a statement released by ICASA, the organizers honored Mandela, saying “We are reminded of the immeasurable contribution Mr Mandela made to the cause. Without his input and guidance many of the successes we have achieved would not have materialised. His legacy will live forever because of his commitment in the many years before his passing.”
All of the opening speakers extolled the role played by Mandela in the fight against HIV, urging all conference delegates to emulate him.
Without taking away anything from all the speeches delivered, I passionately single out those that sought to protect women and girls from acts of sexual violence. This, in South Africa, coincides with the release of several news articles detailing the unpalatable acts of some men raping babies and children as young as six weeks.
“Madiba walked his talk, we need to do the same today: walk our talk and act now more than ever,” said Annie Lennox, renowned singer, women’s activist, and UNAIDS international goodwill ambassador. Delivering her speech during the opening ceremony, Lennox argued that while we celebrate the fact that 98% of children today are born HIV negative, the same children are at risk of being sexually assaulted and raped. Sexual violence, she posited, is a cause and consequence of HIV infections.
Lennox emphasized that we need to collectively stop violence against women and children. She challenged everyone to be accountable and help change attitudes of men and boys towards women and girls if we are to reach zero new infections. She closed by stating that we owe it to Mandela that this dream should be fulfilled – that all children are born free of HIV and live a full life.
Echoing Lennox’s opening and the importance of protecting women and children, Zambia’s first lady, Dr. Christine Kaseba-Sata, urged conference delegates to uphold sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) in order to get to zero deaths. She noted that there is no need for women in Africa to continue to die during child birth and that no child should be allowed to die at birth. Hence, a strengthened focus on SRHR would help address gender inequalities issues that fuel HIV infections.
Indeed, MSH’s goal of saving lives and improving health for all resonates well with each of the opening speakers’ sentiments and our vision of “A world where everyone has the opportunity for a healthy life” epitomizes Mandela’s dreams.
As the conference gets in full swing, one cannot help but to support the statement that “it is fitting that we honour Mr Mandela’s legacy by ensuring our conference makes every effort to ensure meaningful dialogue is matched by tangible outcomes…the inspirations we have received from Mr Mandela are not wasted. We need to guard against complacency at a time when action is most needed .”
Bright Phiri works with MSH’s Systems for Improved Access to Pharmaceuticals and Services Program in South Africa.