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Town Hall Forum at the Women’s Networking Zone

Musimbi Kanyoro, in charge of reproductive health programs at The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and Steve Kraus, of UNFPA, co-chaired a dialogue between multilateral and civil society leaders and visitors to the Women’s Networking Zone. The leaders who gave their views and then answered audience questions included: Mic Sidibe and Sarah Russell of UNAIDS; Alessandra Nila of Gestos in Brazil; Frika Iskander of ICW, Elisabet Fadul of Global Youth Partners in the Dominican Republic, and Sister Okiello of Kenya. Among the points of interest they and others highlighted:

  • women’s and youth organizations must become bolder and demand the creation of funding sources that will benefit them
  • remind people that women’s problems are everyone’s problems
  • think about how civil society can hold itself accountable
  • ensure that large NGOs with many local branches keep those branches informed about what is happening at the global level.

The Vagina Monologues in Mexico

Joyce Hunter partnered with the ATHENA Network to bring The Vagina Monologues to Mexico. Author Eve Ensler granted permission for conference delegates to read various stories – many of which dealt with violence against women. A testimony by ICW member Jeni Gatsi was added and women from various countries volunteered to bring the stories to life.
The successful performance, which also attracted a fair number of male delegates, led to audience members sharing information about their own personal lives The topics upon which they touched included: self-induced artificial insemination; violence against women from both peers and older men; empathy felt with women who have survived violence in various ways; happiness associated with “letting your vagina” talk.

ATHENA session on men and gender equality

(Comments from Maria de Bruyn)

Why should we work with men on issues of gender equality? This was one of the questions raised by panelists and audience members at a session on “Mobilising men for gender equality: A dialogue about accountability, principles and strategies.” Co-chaired by Tyler Crone, Coordinating Director of the ATHENA Network and Dean Peacock of Sonke Gender Justice in South Africa, the session also addressed ways of ensuring that men can work equitably with women in efforts to achieve gender justice.

Benno de Keijser pointed out that care must be taken so that men do not enter the gender field with the intention of “taking over”. He was echoed by Bafana Khumalo, who said that men must acknowledge women’s leadership as the people who have been on the “receiving end” of patriarchy. Khumalo emphasized that men must be aware of the potential danger of wanting to define for women the agenda for action.
Audience members appeared to agree that it is vital to include men in work to change societal gender norms.

We might want to encourage the men who are already engaged to continue their learning process as evidenced by a panelist’s comment in response to a question about religion. A younger man from the Caribbean region asked whether it wouldn’t be worthwhile to analyze religious discourse and its effect on shaping gender-based norms and expectations. After all, many Christian religions refer to God as “he”, which serves to reinforce the idea that it is men who should lead. One panelist replied that there are actually Bible texts which show God has a more feminine side as well: he referred to passages in which God is shown to be crying and vulnerable.

His response was well-intentioned but it showed that he, too, buys into the idea that tears and vulnerability are female traits rather than masculine characteristics or behaviors/situations which can apply to both men and women. Why wouldn’t we say that the Bible passages showing God to be decisive, for example, are the ones that show God’s feminine side? Some food for thought….

ICW-led discussion on gender and women

On 4 August 2008, ICW — an institutional ATHENA Network member — led a lively discussion at the Mexico AIDS Conference Women’s Networking Zone about our use of the words and concepts “gender” and “women”. A trigger for the discussion came out of a UNAIDS Programme Coordinating Board meeting which considered a document regarding gender issues. Some people had equated “gender” with “women,” but others believed that gender is a broader concept (for example, also referring to groups of different sexual orientations).
Participants broached a number of topics during a wide-ranging dialogue: gender-based violence, violence against women, male circumcision, feminism, criminalization of HIV transmission, societal norms about male and female behavior, and whether any label can be inclusive enough (e.g., does “women” include heterosexual, lesbian and transgender women?).
No definitive conclusions were reached but there seemed to be some agreement that “gender” is a useful analytical and conceptual tool that can help us understand social and cultural norms regarding male and female behavior, attitudes regarding sexual orientation and power relations between and among men and women. There was also some agreement that we may need to be very specific when we want issues of concern for women to be addressed — in these cases, we must refer directly to women and not subsume them under the (politically correct?) term of gender.
This discussion has just begun and ICW has available an exploration paper to stimulate debate about the way that gender is being used by organizations to undermine a political focus on women's rights. It is available in English, Spanish and French.

ATHENA participates in WHO and civil society consultation

On the day of the official opening of the 2008 International AIDS Conference in Mexico City, WHO and PAHO invited civil-society representatives to discuss
ways to improve the health-sector response to HIV/AIDS. The ATHENA Network was fortunate to have several members at this meeting, including: Tyler Crone
(ATHENA); Alice Welbourn, Liz Tremlett and Beri Hull (all ICW); Johanna Kehler (AIDS Legal Network, South Africa); Louise Binder (Blueprint, Canada) and Maria de Bruyn (Ipas).

The consultation emphasized the UN agencies' wish to hear civil-society recommendations on how best to move forward. David Barr of the HIV Collaborative Fund highlighted the fact that the HIV field actually
represents a great public-health success story due to the level and intensity of individual and community engagement seen in policymaking, intervention design and advocacy. He noted that people living with HIV did not allow themselves to be cowed by the stigma and discrimination attached to the epidemic. Rather, they demanded treatment and developed models that were
subsequently adopted by bilateral, multilateral and international non-governmental organizations (such as harm reduction strategies, safer sex campaigns, home-based care, counseling and testing services, and
incorporation of human rights into interventions).

Barr and Beri Hull also noted that the prevention and treatment programs promoted by UN agencies and others will only work if there is buy-in from affected communities. It is, after all, individual people who use or don't use condoms, choose not to share injection equipment, and take the pills that comprise the various treatment regimens.

The civil-society speakers also acknowledged that WHO must negotiate its work terrain with care. As a UN agency, WHO is responsible and accountable to the member States for fulfilling its mandate of promoting public health. However, many States do not consider health care a priority, which is reflected by insufficient budgets and resources and a lack of appropriate policies. On the
other hand, Barr remarked, it is often civil society that can be WHO/PAHO's best allies in advocating for and monitoring government action on public health issues.

Dr. Mirta Rosas Periago, PAHO director, emphasized that civil society organizations know what is happening on the ground, in communities, with the virus - and without that knowledge the UN agencies cannot do their work of
establishing norms, guidelines and policy advice. Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General, stated her commitment to listen to, and learn from, the
civil-society recommendations, while meeting moderator Marsha Martin expressed the hope that these would lead to a purposeful framework through which WHO/PAHO and civil society could discuss and advise one another and
improve their understanding of one another's work.

The civil society recommendations were formulated in small groups and categorized under four main headings: 1) People and diversities should be at the heart of the response; 2) We need multidisciplinary partnerships that
recognize people's personal and experiential (not only academic) expertise; 3) WHO must engage civil society in carrying out its task of global leadership; and 4) Accountability and sustainability should underlie any collaborative efforts. Some of the more concrete recommendations included asking WHO/PAHO to create a budget line specifically to financially support civil society collaboration with them; a commitment to develop guidance and best practice documents together (rather than just having civil society offer comments on completed drafts); and taking steps to improve communication between the UN agencies and civil society organizations.

Various planning documents have emerged from the work that ATHENA members are doing for the Mexico AIDS Conference:

Building toward Mexico City – consultation summary in English
Building toward Mexico City – consultation summary in Spanish
Themes from Mexico City consultation – English
Themes from Mexico City consultation – Spanish
Vision for AIDS 2008 – English
Vision for AIDS 2008 - Spanish


ATHENA members working officially on Mexico 2008

A number of ATHENA members and friends are working on preparations for the next International AIDS Conference in Mexico in leadership positions:

Conference Coordinating Committee:

Beri Hull, ICW, USA, ATHENA Steering Committee
Sophie Dilmitis, World YWCA, Switzerland (ATHENA serves as member of reference group)

Community Programming Committee:

Philippa Lawson, Co-Chair, Constella Futures/ICW, USA, ATHENA friend
Beatrice Were, Co-Chair, ActionAid/ICW, USA, ATHENA friend
Gcebile Ndlovu, ICW Southern Africa, Swaziland, ATHENA friend
Niza Picasso, ICW Mexico, ATHENA friend

Leadership Programming Committee:

Jennifer Gatsi, ICW Namibia, ATHENA member

Scientific Programming Committee:

Ida Susser, Co-Chair Track D (Social Science), Columbia University/Hunter College, USA, ATHENA Steering Committee
Lydia Mungherera, Mama’s Club, Uganda, ATHENA Steering Committee
Jodi Jacobson, AJWS, USA, ATHENA Steering Committee
Dawn Averitt Bridge, The Well Project, USA ATHENA Member


ATHENA and planning for the 2008 International AIDS Conference

From 7-11 May, UNFPA and UNIFEM, in partnership with the ATHENA Network, are convening a consultation with HIV-positive Mexican women leaders. ATHENA Network members who have led previous organizing efforts around International AIDS Conferences since Durban in 2000 will share that history and expertise to ensure that the leadership and participation of HIV-positive women in Mexico and throughout Latin America is strong for the upcoming International AIDS Conference in 2008. Tyler Crone (ATHENA Network Coordinating Director), MariJo Vázquez (ICW), Betsi Pendry (The Living Together), Monruedee Laphimon (Thai Women and HIV/AIDS Task Force), and Shari Margolese (Voices of Positive Women) will bring their collective expertise from Women at Durban, Women at Barcelona/Mujeres Adelante, Women at Bangkok, and the Women’s Networking Zone in Toronto. ATHENA member Tamil Kendall is co-leading the consultation and Eugenia López Uribe of Ipas México will contribute to the meeting.