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Last week the AIDemocracy team braved the freezing rain to increase awareness around World AIDS Day. First Priti and I joined up with AIDS activists in front of the Wilson Building Offices of the mayor and city council of DC. The rally focused on AIDS in the district and was sponsored by DC Fights Back. We gathered to protest on behalf of the one thousand HIV+ individuals on the affordable housing wait list. Dozens joined in chants demanding that new Mayor Vincent Gray and City Council Chairman Kwame Brown commit to meeting the housing needs of HIV+ individuals in DC.

Activists were carrying a large red house representing the basic right to housing and Priti and I handed out red ribbons to the crowd. As we marched from Freedom Plaza to the Wilson building, we flooded the street, stopping traffic and getting a few honks and waves in solidarity. We left the red house on the steps of the Wilson Building as a little present for the Mayor, and began to march to the capital.

As we headed to the second part of the rally we kept ourselves amped despite the cold by chanting and singing. The second part of the rally took place at the White House gates and had a global focus. We headed over and met up with Patrick, Lisa, and Ashleigh. Health GAP and ACT Up Philadelphia organized a funeral for the 1.8 million who have died globally in the past year without access to AIDS treatment. Activists from Philadelphia had traveled by bus to join local activists in asking President Obama to keep his promise to increase foreign aid for AIDS.

“President Obama, you can be the president to start the end of the AIDS crisis if you just do what you promised when you ran for office,” implored Jose DeMarco of ACT Philadelphia. Despite promises and commitments to increase overseas support for AIDS, US funding has flat-lined and funding for AIDS treatment has decreased.

Media gathered to capture the rally interview the energetic crowd. Local theater groups performed a sketch about the shortage of AIDS treatment in Africa. We all grew solemn as two reverends led a service to commemorate those lost to AIDS without access to treatment. Activists and community members who have lost loved ones placed flowers on a casket to honor those who have died from AIDS without treatment.

Meanwhile, chapters were commemorating World AIDS. Here’s a snap shot of what was going on across the country.

  • The Fresno State chapter organized a film screening with guest speaker and women’s studies professor, Melissa Knight. Following the film they discussed HIV/AIDS in local communities and abroad. They also tabled on campus and collected petition signatures to ask for more foreign aid for AIDS funding.

  • The Global Health Network at George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services passed out fliers and ribbons to class mates to increase awareness.

  • Over 50 students and community members in south Bronx hosted their second annual World AIDS Day carnival. They screened the film SASA! and high school students played games that increased AIDS and STI awareness.

  • The Swarthmore College chapter tabled outside of the campus dining hall to increase awareness. Students handed out ribbons and information sheets and let people know that it was World AIDS Day.  They stopped everyone who walked in and out of the dining hall and got them to participate!

Overall, it was a great day in terms of increases awareness and acknowledging that there is still so much more to do to combat AIDS. Thanks to everyone here in DC and across the US for making it a success!

Normally I can’t stand being stuck in traffic. At around 10:30 am Saturday morning I was already an hour late for a pre-rally breakfast, and I was getting nowhere fast. But as my car inched down Constitution Ave., I couldn’t keep a smile off my face.  A steady stream of people coming from all directions was converging on the mall for the Stewart/Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity/Fear. I had silently hoped that the rally would have a great turn out and it looked like those hopes were about to be realized.

Half an hour and ten blocks later, I ended up at the breakfast, just in time to leave for the rally. I left as part of a group of around twenty but lost most of our group in the crowd, and arrived on the mall in a group of four. As soon as we hit the rally we were diluted into the massive crowd of energetic rally goers.  One minute I was talking to my friend and the next I was next to a group of Canadians in banana suits.

I had been looking forward to the rally since it was announced, but I didn’t know what to expect. And I was not alone. Leading up to the rally the media had attempted to predict exactly what the rally was going to be. Many assumed Stewart would use it as an opportunity to energize liberal voters just a few days out from the election. What we actually found at the rally was a medley of music, comedy, politics, and Halloween. For the most part, Colbert and Stewart stuck to their opposing characters, playing a conservative fear monger and the voice of reason.

One of the most amazing parts of the experience was the crowd, which was estimated to be around 250,000 people. I’ve been to several rallies in my life but I have never been to one that was so cheerful and pleasant. We were packed onto the mall like sardines, but people squeezed past each other with smiles on their faces, apologizing as they stepped on each other’s feet. There was a great feeling of solidarity and cooperation amongst the group. Taller people used their vantage point in the crowd to fill in the shorter ones about what was happening on stage. Strangers took pictures with each other to commemorate the event. One sign I saw pretty much summed up this spirit: “I’m pretty sure I’d like you if I got to know you.”

The signs were just as much a part of the rally as the people. Most of the signs were a reaction to polarization and hysteria. Some were political, some were witty, some called for open-mindedness and some were downright silly. For those of you who missed out, here are some highlights:

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“So what was this?” asked Stewart toward the end of the rally. He asked permission to be serious for a bit in what turned out to be the highlight of the rally. Read the rest of this entry »

Every fall as the trees shed their colorful leaves I get a little nostalgic. When I see the children in my neighborhood setting pumpkins on their doorsteps and frolicking in leaves, I feel a pang of jealousy. With all the stresses of ‘adult life’ and grad school, I miss the carefree days of my childhood. Then I think about how lucky I was to have that experience, when so many children across the globe have their childhood cut short because of poverty, cultural expectations, and shockingly, as they are forced into marriage.

Think of a young girl in your life.  Think of your sibling, niece, cousin, neighbor, daughter or even a memory of yourself as a child. Now think of 60 million girls just like her married across the globe. Imagine them pressured by families and communities to enter into adulthood at the age of 16, 12 or even 7. Imagine them being forced to marry, often a much older man, and assume the role of a wife and mother.

The emotional, social, and health consequences of this are enormous. These girls are often forced to move far away from their families to be with their husbands. Once they are married they can no longer pursue their education. Since they are so young, they have no say within the family. They are expected to immediately fulfill their roles as wives by becoming sexually active. Most have no sexual and reproductive health education, and no idea of how to protect themselves from STIs or unwanted pregnancies. Furthermore, the girls face pressure to prove their fertility as soon as they are married.

Sexual activity and pregnancy at a young age both bear dangerous health consequences. A young, undeveloped body is often not ready for the physical strain of pregnancy and childbirth. In many of the countries in which child marriage is prevalent, Read the rest of this entry »

About two weeks ago Julia and I attended the US Global Leadership Council’s annual conference. The day was filled with brilliant speakers, but in the end we both agreed that one of our favorites was Gary Knell, President and CEO of Sesame Working shop. He discussed “Muppet Diplomacy”, the idea that through educational television we can develop nations and encourage a more positive relationship between the U.S. and other nations. As Julia mentioned in an earlier post, this was a refreshing viewpoint on a panel that mostly focused on the direct impact of development on business’ pockets (not so surprising since it was a panel on development’s economic impacts).

Sesame Workshop was founded thirty-eight years ago to help low income children in the U.S. prepare for school. The concept was simple: use television to address the developmental needs of children. Since then, the Sesame Street model has gone global. Sesame Workshop works with 18 countries (Australia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Egypt ,France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Kosovo, Mexico, Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Palestine, Russia, South Africa ) on locally produced media following the Sesame model. Each production team involves the top educators, researchers, psychologists, child development experts, artists, writers and musicians in their respective countries. Today Sesame Street if the most researched show in history.

What is most interesting about this process is how local productions are using the Sesame model to talk about regionally relevant issues. Rechov Sumsum, the production in Israel features Arab-Israeli and Jewish- Israeli muppets living together in harmony. Alam Simsim, Egypt’s production features a bright young female muppet, Khokha, to promote the empowerment and education of young girls.

South Africa’s Takalani Sesame embodies the spirit of the “rainbow nation” and features muppets that speak with accents that reflect the diversity of the nation. Most notable is Kami, a young female muppet who is HIV positive. As South Africa continues to be devastated by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the show is attempting to dispel the culture of silence and stigma surrounding the issue.

The name “Kami” comes from the Setswana word “Kamodelo” which means “acceptance.” Kami is a Read the rest of this entry »

Last week I posted about an event I attended promoting the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA). The event featured guest speaker Rose Mapendo, who shared her own story as a survivor of rape and ethnic violence in the DRC. I was moved by her story and am excited to see IVAWA passed. Today the BBC reported that the UN has moved to address the issue of sexual violence in the DRC. It is an interesting article so I thought I would share.

Don’t forget to contact your representatives urging them to support IVAWA. You can also visit www.PassIVAWA.org for more information on the legislation and how you can take action.

DR Congo sexual violence victims speak to UN

September 30, 2010

Village of Luvungi, DR Congo. Photo: 6 Sept 2010
Victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo have begun telling a high-level UN panel about their experiences as part of efforts to improve treatment and support.

The hearings began on Thursday in the troubled eastern region of South Kivu.

The panel will travel to provinces throughout the DRC.

The move follows the release of a preliminary UN report into the shocking rape of hundreds of civilians in North Kivu province two months ago.

The report, released last week, documented a four-day attack on the eastern town of Luvungi, and nearby villages – which are within miles of a UN base.

It said three groups of armed militia raped 235 women, 52 girls, 13 men and three boys – many of them “multiple times”. The militia looted more than 900 houses and abducted 116 people.

Read the rest of this entry »

“What have you done today to make you proud?”

Yvonna Chaka Chaka posed this question to the audience at an event I attended last week and it has been on my mind ever since.

The Global Health Council and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health hosted a film screening of The Motherland Tour- A Journey of African Women with Yvonne Chaka Chaka and discussion on the links between global health, development, gender and the Millennium Development Goals.  Speaking on these issues were Dr. Matthew Lunch (Director of the Global Program on Malaria at the Center for Communication Programs, CCP, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health), Louis da Gama (Malaria Advocacy and Communications Director, Global Health Advocates), and Yvonna Chaka Chaka (Entertainer and Humanitarian).

The Motherland Tour documents Yvonne Chaka Chaka’s travels to meet with women across Africa and discuss the most pressing issues they face– including malaria, maternal and child health, HIV/AIDS, women’s empowerment, education, and poverty. The film features personal stories and women-lead grassroots efforts to tackle these issues. Although optimistic and uplifting, the film does not shy away from highlighting the gravity of the present situation. The narrator reminds the audience of the harsh realities.

Malaria kills an African child every 30 seconds.

For rural populations the closest health clinic may be up to a four day walk away.

Most of these clinics are understaffed and under stocked.

In Sub-Saharan Africa over 24 million children and adults are estimated to be living with HIV.

After the screening, Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Louis da Gama explained that they created this film with the intent of “giving voices to the voiceless.” They pointed out that leaders must be reminded of the women they are meant to be representing and who brought them into this world. They also stressed the need for programs focused on empowering women to help themselves. In Yvonne’s words, “I will hold your hand as you help yourself.” Her overall message is that “Africa has hope”, and that hope lies in empowering women (or Well Organized MEN as she joked).

Louis da Gama reminded the audience that just because the economy is in recession does not mean that HIV/AIDs, TB and malaria are also in recession. We need continued funding, to the Global Fund in particular, if there is to be any hope for the improvement of health conditions in Africa.

So back to the question. “What have you done today to make you proud?” Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Louis da Gama recommend that you contact your representatives to encourage them act boldly in support of global health funding. Here are some actions you can take today:

Sign this petition asking Obama to commit $6 billion to the Global Fund in the next three years.

Contact your member of Congress urging to honor the promise of $1 billion a year by supporting full funding for malaria.

Contact your members of Congress and urge them to continue exercising leadership on this critical issue.

Go ahead, make yourself proud!

Thursday morning I attended Stories of Courage and Success: Surviving and Ending Violence Against Women Internationally, an event that was organized to bolster efforts to pass the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA, H.R. 4594/ S. 2982). There I was– my first day as an official AIDemocracy intern– sitting before an impressive panel of women’s rights advocates. The excitement I felt being in a room with these dedicated individuals, couldn’t prepare me for what I was about to hear.

After opening remarks from Maria Alexandra Arriaga (Senior Campaign Strategist for the Family Violence Prevention Fund) and Paula Kerger (president and CEO of PBS) a woman took the podium and began to sing to the crowd. Although I couldn’t understand the lyrics, the pain in her song didn’t need a translation.

This woman was Rose Mapendo, a Tutsi woman born in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. When the Rwandan army invaded the Congo in 1998 and president Kabila declared Tutsis were the enemy, pregnant Rose, her husband, and seven of her eight children were arrested and sent to a death camp. In the camp Rose witnessed the execution of her husband. According to the commanders at the camp, “women were not worth the bullet” so they were killed in other ways. Rose witnessed her family and friends slowly killed through systematic rape, beatings and starvation. After eight months in captivity Rose gave birth to twin boys on concrete prison floor. She had to beg guards for a piece of bamboo to cut the umbilical cord.

Rose never thought that there was a chance her family would survive the squalor, malnutrition, violence and rape at that camp. Yet through some miracle Rose made it to a refugee camp in Cameroon and eventually resettled to Pheonix, Arizona. She founded Mapendo International in 2003, and “works to fill the critical and unmet needs of people affected by war and conflict who have fallen through the net of humanitarian assistance”. In 2009 Rose was honored with the Humanitarian of the Year Award by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees.

This year PBS will be airing Pushing the Elephant, a film that documents Rose’s reunification with her daughter Nangabire. The documentary follows them for a year as they make up for the decade they were separated. The film airs March 2011 as part of PBS’ Independent Lens Series. When Rose finished sharing her story there was not a dry eye in the house. I couldn’t help but wonder how in the 21st century violence against women can still be used as a weapon of war.

The presentation continued with Ambassador George Ward (Senior VP for International Programs, World Vision) and Samantha Mathis (Actor & Human Rights Activist) explaining the on-the-ground reality of gender based violence. Ritu Sharma (President and Co-Founder, Women Thrive Worldwide) bravely shared her own story as a survivor of rape, and highlighted the necessity to act now on International Violence Against Women’s Act (IVAWA).

When 1 in 3 women worldwide experience violence in their lifetime, measures like IVAWA are not only needed but necessary. I encourage all of you to contact your representatives today to request they support this common sense legislation. You can also visit www.PassIVAWA.org for more information on the legislation and how you can take action.

Read another one of our blogs about IVAWA here.

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