Marchers: more money to fight HIV and AIDS
In the middle of the working day, marchers from New York City from Bryant Park to the United Nations called on world leaders not to cut funds to HIV programs worldwide. A coalition of 22 community and faith-based agencies from the area marched in the week when the world commemorated 30 years since the U.S. Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention identified HIV and AIDS.
Despite the noonday heat more than 500 men and women - lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and straight; Black, White, Latino, Asian and Native Indian marched and chanted along the sidewalk with banners and placards emblazoned with slogans on their way to the United Nations.
Many uniformed NYPD officers carrying white plastic ties, used to restrain and detain people in place of handcuffs, escorted the marchers. Legal representatives wearing arm bands as legal observers mingled among the marchers to ensure that the police did not violate their rights. At one point, when the march had diverted from its route on 42nd Street to pass in front of the offices of the European Union and NY Governor, it seemed as if an altercation between the police and the march organizers was about to erupt over their presence on the sidewalk instead of in the corralled area created by the police barricades on a section of the street. The police, after lots of hurried discussions among them, gave in and allowed the marchers to continue their protest and march.
The march and rally at Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza across from the UN on Wednesday, June 8, was intended to urge global leaders and governmental representatives gathered for the quinquennium meeting of the Global Fund to evaluate state and institutional responses to the HIV and AIDS epidemic. The representatives met to examine strides made to combat the disease, to look at funding to fight the virus, especially in light of the financial crisis facing many countries, and to commit to at least $22 billion a year in funding for 15 years to end AIDS globally.
But the document, expected to be presented to the UN on Friday, June 10 and negotiated between the governments' and NGO representatives, and decried by many as watered down from the original demands, declared that governments were prepared to commit to an estimated $18 billion to be spent on the more than 15 million people suffering from HIV/AIDS worldwide.
The protestors, including representatives from many African countries, hardest hit by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, said that the amount is insufficient and called for money to be spent on AIDS treatment and not on wars.
"We're demanding that 18 million people be brought to treatment by 2015," said Alan Maleche, a member of the Kenyan Legal and Ethical Network on HIV/AIDS. Maleche, a human rights lawyer and a part of the African Civil Society, said, "The problem is that governments are saying they don't have enough money to provide treatment, but we are saying that they have the money, which they use for wars. Many governments signed documents to protect the rights of people and we're here to ensure they keep their promises."
Nonkosi Kuhumalo, national chairperson for Treatment Action Campaign from Johannesburg, South Africa, said "My view of the document is that in its current form with the political language, which doesn't say much, is a step backward from where we were in 2001. The three million difference was political, arriving at the $15 billion was also difficult."
Twenty-five year old Nabhumba Nuru, called "Princess" from Uganda, who was born with HIV and takes medication, said that she is one of five million people with the virus and that 124 thousand people contract HIV each year in Uganda. She came to the UN to make it clear to world leaders that there is need for more HIV medicines for people.
"In Uganda, the spending on HIV has flat lined; there is no increase in funding from the government and from donors there is discussion to ensure there are no cuts. While my country does not follow the World Health Organization's guidelines for HIV, in the Ugandan budget much of the government expenditure is being used for the military and it should be used for HIV prevention and treatment programs."
Obtaining drugs for HIV in Uganda, Nuru said is not as expensive, since its availability at a low cost through the US PEPFAR program makes up 90 percent of the country's HIV budget.
One of the march organizers, Bobby Tolbert, a board member with Vocal-NY, said that on the day when annually the UN celebrates AIDS Day, "We're appealing to them to make a recommitment to HIV/AIDS programs and to ensure the continued funding."
A June 4 Economist article, "The 30 years War", examining the history and effect of HIV and AIDS on the world, suggested that while war costs money, which at the moment is in short supply, 10 years ago, when countries' economies were doing better and were able to give more, the global financial crisis which has hit many rich countries; has caused many to either cut their contributions or scale back the level of their commitment.
According to the article, the Global Fund, formed 10 years ago, about the time of the 20th anniversary of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, was a response by a collection of rich countries to provide funds for the estimated 139 poor or underdeveloped countries severely impacted by and whose peoples have been severely devastated by the virus, tuberculosis and malaria. Despite the financial crisis' effect on the Global Fund, rich donor countries such as the US, Great Britain, France, Canada and Scandinavia are still committed, with Spain, the Netherlands announcing cuts, Germany delaying payments, and Italy withdrawing from its promise altogether.
But, 29-year-old John Mathenge, a Kenyan sex worker and country coordinator of the Kenyan Sex Workers Alliance, said he came to the UN so that the voice of the male, female, and transgender sex workers could be heard. As a sex worker, as with the many sex workers who are barred from entry into the US, he detailed the difficulties he had to obtain an entry visa into the US. He said he appealed to the US embassy using the provisions of President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), initiated by former president George Bush.
Mathenge, who is a member of the Kikuyu tribe, said that among his people being gay could get him killed. He said he is HIV negative because for the 18 years since he was in the sex trade, he has consistently used protection, considering himself one of the lucky not to have contracted the virus. He added, "Many people think that sex workers are criminals, but we are the ones at the front of the HIV epidemic. I expect the G8 and European Union to put more money to fight HIV/AIDS and not for wars."