UNAIDS has been such an important leader and partner in the HIV/AIDS response
Dr. Nelson Musoba
Winnie Byanyima’s elevation to the helm of the UNAIDS is an outstanding achievement for all foot soldiers that have given their best in the struggle to end HIV and AIDS, especially in Uganda.
UNAIDS has been such an important leader and partner in the HIV/AIDS response and over the years, Uganda has enjoyed a special relationship of mutual respect and continuous learning in the struggle to end AIDS.
In June 2017, the outgoing UNAIDS executive director, Michel Sidibe, was in the country to grace the launch of the Presidential Fast Track Initiative on ending AIDS by 2030. The fast-track platform launched at the UN in 2016 is being used to accelerate progress towards achieving the set targets. It uses two approaches; one addresses underlying drivers for new HIV infections and campaign targeting key change agents for behavioural change by disseminating HIV-prevention messages.
A review after two years of implementation shows that Uganda is back on track and will re-emerge as the global leader in curtailing new infections, pioneering homegrown resource mobilisation strategies through mobilisation of the local leaders and communities.
We, therefore, welcome Byanyima’s appointment given her track record and previous achievements that will help us to accelerate and contribute to the achievement of Uganda’s target of ending AIDS as a public health threat by 2030.
The other key strategy under the Presidential Fast Track Initiative is mainstreaming HIV/AIDS into other initiatives such as increasing school enrolment and completion rates, poverty eradication, wealth creation and ending gender-based violence, among others. All these are interlocking vulnerabilities that Byanyima is very familiar with and we believe her presence at UNAIDS will strength the voice and agency of the most vulnerable, especially the women and adolescent girls.
Uganda, like many countries, is still largely a patriarchal society, where issues of masculinity, inheritance and ownership of property and gender-based violence need to be consistently brought to the fore in our efforts to end AIDS.
We know that gender-based violence and inequality increases HIV vulnerability, most especially for women and adolescent girls and continues to be one of the least addressed bottlenecks fuelling the epidemic.
Uganda AIDS Commission has been collaborating with partners to support the integration of holistic healing and empowerment to survivors of the violence. Gender-based violence attacks the body, weakens the mind and kills one’s spirit. The victims lose self-esteem and confidence in themselves as individuals of value within the community, which leaves them vulnerable to sexual abuse and hence susceptible to HIV. Such survivors are usually associated with a high risk of suicide, revenge sex amongst couples something that increases the risk of catching HIV, drug and substance abuse, depression, etc.
For us to be able to successfully address these interlocking vulnerabilities that continue to hamper our efforts, we need to skilfully utilise the power of partnerships. Like we have always stated, managing HIV is not an issue for public health practitioners alone. We need to harness the power of local governments, multilateral agencies, the private sector, and civil society. Throughout Winnie Byanyima’s track record at the national, regional and global level, she has led or been part of initiatives to fight inequality.
We are, therefore, sure that we have an ally who is going to consistently advocate the right combinations in ending AIDS. As part of the Presidential Initiative on ending AIDS in Uganda, we had a series of community dialogues all throughout the country that brought together young people, people living with HIV and traditional and faith-based leaders that focused on identifying persistent community bottlenecks to achieving this objective.
We consistently found that the prevailing gender norms that increase violence against women such as child marriage, transactional sex and rite of passage practices are still common in several communities in Uganda and these regions showed an increasing level of HIV prevalence. Through these open and frank discussions with the communities, it is clear that negative social norms and practices can be ended. There is a need for community champions, who are willing to stand up and speak out against some of these long-held negative traditions. We need to continue to work hard to ensure that our communities are on the side of these vulnerable girls.
We need to ensure that the voice of the most vulnerable finds its way into the boardrooms and that their lived experiences continue to inform policies and resource mobilisation strategies and the resultant implementation as well.
Uganda AIDS Commission appreciates Joint UN Support Programme (JUPSA) for their grass root knowledge and supports towards the HIV/AIDS response in Uganda. Apart from the policy and key research support that they provide, they continue to support real grassroots-based interventions that have been very effective in mobilising communities, especially young people to change their ways. A case in point is the AIDS Challenge Club based in Hoima; a group young talented boys and girls living with and affected by HIV/AIDS who were spotted during one of the regional events in Hoima and their performance has since been adopted, modified and serves as the theme song for the Presidential Fast Track Initiative.
These young people like many such groups use their homegrown talent, of music and dance to educate their peers on prevention and behaviour change. The belief and support towards such interventions strengthen our effort in reaching out to more people.
As we welcome Winnie Byanyima’s appointment to her new position, we have hope that the struggle to end AIDS and all its interlocking vulnerabilities such as gender violence can also be embraced by the men and boys as partners of women and girls. We are calling upon men and boys to stand out and lead a new movement that fosters positive masculinity. A movement of men who love and care to protect their partners, men who embrace HIV testing and are willing to adopt better health-seeking behavior.
The writer is the Director-General of the Uganda AIDS Commission