Yes, I am here.
When I arrived in Toronto via Moscow - long flight - we were greeted by the Canadian immigration who boarded the plane just to check if we were legit. The ripples of London reached here too.
Welcome to North America.
The first few days involved sleep and a gorgeous drive through the vine country of Canada to Niagara Falls.
Lots of water.
Now the conference... what can I say... on the first day, Sunday, immediately after registration I stumbled into a satellite symposium on HIV and disability. Stumbled on... well, I couldn't ignore it, especially after my experience with the questionnaire that I wrote about last time.
I stood up and admitted how embarrassed I was as a grassroots activist and interventionist - don't you love the jargon? - to have ignored the disabled community thus far. This was followed by some great networking on possible approaches. Paul you'll be proud of me.
Paul's parting words to me were, "Network, network, network."
Then came the opening ceremony... I have never felt so alone in a crowd of over 20,000. How wonderful it would have been if someone was here with me. Never again will I attend these conferences alone. I will ensure that I have with me another DISHA team member or volunteer. These experiences have to be shared.
I listened to Bill and Melinda Gates and of course Richard Gere amongst others.
Stigma emerged as a major concern. This will become apparent in the rest of this blog.
The gorgeous, yes gorgeous Canadian governor General of Canada spoke of the fact that 'AIDS has no boundaries' and that it gives a flying fuck about 'our prejudices.' (Her words were more temperate.)
We must act now.
We cannot remain indifferent.
To give up is unforgivable.
The battle against AIDS is a battle for life!
I sat there pondering my decision to leave Pune at the end of next year... I'll return to this momentarily.
Then came a young woman from Thailand who was born the year that AIDS was discovered: 1981.
She spoke articulately on Stigma and Discrimination (S & D) and suddenly said, fuck it!
"Stigma is irreducible. Accept it. Move on. Don't give it the power it craves."
I have sat through sessions just today on S & D that have echoed this. Don't give it the power it craves. Don't give a fuck.
And while I do agree... I have seen what S & D can do in our community of Tadiwala Road. I have seen and felt people die because of S & D. To say 'fuck it' is not always possible... it wasn't possible for Saraswathi. It wasn't possible for Anita. It wasn't possible for Milind. The list goes on.
Some parts of the world have moved on. We are still working our way through S & D. Hopefully one day we can come to a position that says 'fuck it' too. But not yet.
And talking about time scales... Dr. Piot who leads the UNAIDS unequivocally declared that while HIV/AIDS is 25 years old, it'll take at least another 25 to eradicate it. That too, if we all work together.
I sat there thinking of Tadiwala Road... about my decision to move on...
DISHA team, including volunteers, I know you are working hard on the 'Wake Up Pune' initiative, especially Sara and Smiler. I am grateful to you for it. But those of you who will be with us over this next year are in for a ride... there is no rest for the wicked... and wicked we must be!
Bill and Melinda Gates spoke on microbicide research and women centric initiatives are huge here. It is inspiring and Stephen Lewis - thank you Rachel for introducing me to the way this man thinks - is crucial. His thoughts will influence the way we work on the DISHA project. Not just where the empowerment of women are concerned but where holistic and sustained approaches are concerned that include the need for relentless advocacy.
The Gates couple also underlined that "Stigma has made AIDS harder to fight."
Stigma is cruel.
Stigma is irrational.
Their words. Guys our focus on S & D on the DISHA project is intuitive. It is a response to what we have experienced. It is not in response to an evidence based study. This is why it will succeed. It is real. We feel it. We smell it. We taste it.
Our clients feel it.
Our clients smell it.
Our clients taste it.
The 'Wake Up Pune' initiative is so crucial to this battle. There have been innumerable moments these last two days that I have wished that I could flip open my phone and ask Scotty to beam me up and then beam me down back to Pune. Back and forth. Forth and back. What we are trying to achieve is real guys, and more than ever I appreciate that a 'one off' event or couple of events are not going to achieve much. It is merely the beginning. We have to make Pune a HIV Positive City and the coalition of sorts that we are trying to put together with the 'Wake Up Pune' initiative is the first step.
We have to inspire organisations that work with us. We have to ensure that they deliver... and if Sara and Smiler's e-mails are anything to go by... then fuck, we have our work cut out.
This morning I sat in on a session with Bill & Bill: Gates and Clinton talking about the holistic approaches that are required if we are to make any headway against HIV/AIDS.
Holistic. Holistic. Holistic.
This conference has resulted in umpteen evaluations on the DISHA project in my head. We are good. We have achieved much! We have fallen down too. We have to pick ourselves up and approach from a different angle, especially on the stigma issue in the community. This includes the vulnerable members of the Tadiwala Road community that we have largely ignored: MSM, IDU, transgender, disabled... not on purpose... well... maybe deep down we felt that we were not equipped, although we have never admitted to this... no more excuses. We will find a way.
"We got to continue to fight stigma." We need "aggressive efforts against stigma"
William J Clinton
All sectors of the community must be reached! This is must be DISHA's first step against stigma... insidious layered stigma!
Here in Toronto S & D appears to be the obstacle at every turn. It is crucial that our response to S & D must be measured and integrate with the intervention required in our specific contexts. Yet, to ignore it, to pretend that we can overcome it by ignoring it, will only lead to more Saraswathis and Anitas and Milinds and an overflowing Sahara Care Home in Wagholi: A place of abandonment, death... refuse. And there are Saraswathis, Anitas and Milinds amongst the MSM, IDU, Transgender and disabled community too.
Finally today I attended the symposium on HIV/AIDS and Media - it is agonizingly difficult to attend every session, especially the concurrent sessions - and as you guys know the issue of media is something that we on the DISHA project engage with.
Gere was back with a distinguished panel of media leaders including the MTV head and Peter Mukherji who heads up Star India...
Gere and Mukherji in particular were very positive about the initiatives with media in India.
I sat there smoldering... its not that I didn't agree but especially where the print media was concerned we have seen quite a few articles that are absolutely fucking crap! Also the issue of the media's focus on sex... I pondered whether to take the floor... this was Richard Gere... and then I thought fuck it! I represent the DISHA/Sahara clients and team! I was up and raising my concerns and by then gave a fuck about what anyone thought. I have discussed these issues ad nauseum in Pune, why the fuck shouldn't I bring them up here.
I had Mr. Gere agree with me... I was laughing inside at how surreal this was on the one hand and fucking stony cold on the outside as I pushed him to clarify his position and also of course Peter Mukherji...
This is what this conference can do. It brings together frontline grassroots little people like me and gives us a forum to engage with those like Gere, Gates and Clinton... and more.
The big guns in the field are here guys. And there is no need to be overawed by this. Take them on. Talk to them. Push them. We know what the reality on the ground is... but make sure we learn too. They have much to teach us. Much! In a day and a half I have learned more than I ever imagined I would. The responses to this global pandemic are overwhelming... and it is crucial that we do not become overwhelmed, but rather focus on our communities and focus the responses we encounter here and adapt/tailor them to the responses/intervention required in a community like Tadiwala Road and the city of Pune.
Like I said earlier DISHA team and volunteers who will be with us long term... we have much to do.
Miss you all.
On with the dance!