The « Paris Community Declaration » was one of the highlights of the IAS 2017 conference. This initiative was presented at a press conference and as part of the official opening session of the Conference. It puts the key populations at the heart of the HIV response, their rights being taken into account. This community engagement, Yves Yomb, leads him to Alternative Cameroon, association whose mission is to defend the rights of sexual minorities. Yves was one of the speakers at the closing session of the Paris HIV Science Conference. In his speech, he came back on his journey, his commitment and the importance of taking into account key populations to really end the epidemic..
Good evening everybody.
My name is Yves and I am gay. I am from Cameroon. Although my country continues to discriminate against gay people and puts us in jail, the situation is improving. This change is from the support of amFAR, Sidaction and Aides. Without their initial support, the fight for LGBT rights and against AIDS could have been lost. I want to thank you for believing in us.
I also want to thank international organisations like the Global Fund and PEPFAR, and bilateral donor countries contributing to Cameroon, for funding advocacy, human rights, and research that are helping us win the fight against AIDS. Without PEPFAR, we would not have data on the prevalence of HIV amongst key populations; in particular men who have sex with men and female sex workers. This knowledge has helped us advocate for treatment and support services for those who are most in need. Also important is support from the Global Fund that provided us with ART, which has saved many lives. Without this support, I would not be standing here today. Thank you.
I have been living with HIV for 10 years. I want to share with you our work at “Alternatives Cameroun”. We are involved in advocacy to improve the right to health of LGBT in Cameroon. To understand the context of our work, let me describe to you what it is like to be gay in my country. Still today in Cameroon, people think that the decline of society is caused by homosexuality. Consider the infamous affair of 2005 when the media published a list of famous people supposed to be homosexuals and described them as being responsible for all the evils in society. How could I talk about my sexuality in this setting? Who could I talk to?
It was at this time, that we created a solidarity network which gave another dimension to homosexuality than homophobia. For the first time in our lives, we dared to be ourselves. We shared information, offered each other support and benefited from help that we had learned never to expect. This was the beginning of the organisation “Alternatives Cameroun” whose mission is to defend the rights of sexual minorities; and this was also the beginning of my commitment to the community.
We are in the most optimistic time in HIV – we have technologies today that can effectively prevent HIV infection and transmission. However, as Ether Duflo presented in the opening plenary, these technologies are remarkable only if they are adopted by communities. Understanding the needs of communities and how to make technologies “stick” will be our next challenge. Therefore, I would like to take this opportunity to call for greater investment in communities, and for communities to be courageous in doing what is right even without expertise. It is important to hear community needs, and to design a response that fulfils individual needs – a differentiated service delivery approach.
I stand in front of you today because people believed in me. And I became what I am today, because people gave me the opportunity to express myself, and to show them what I could do. If I managed to do it, other people could do it too. Therefore, I would like to call for more believe in community and trust us to implement our own projects. Help us to grow. This was what happened at “Alternative Cameroun”. Despite our lay approach, we developed our own expertise, and our experience began to resonate beyond the Cameroon border. We facilitated exchanges and shared our experiences elsewhere in Africa. We discovered that by standing together, we were stronger. Perhaps our biggest success is the creation of an African network of organisations supporting MSM, called AfricaGay contre sida. Today I have the honour of coordinating this network. It is an example of the self determination of African communities.
All too often, important decisions regarding our communities are considered to be the exclusive preserve of institutions. Sometimes they do us the favour of involving us. But many times this is tokenistic. Standing before you now, I remember communities without a voice and remind all of us that there should be Nothing about us without us. Popularised in Denver in 1985 and subsequently developed by GIPA (Greater Involvement of People living with HIV & AIDS) in Paris in 1994, it is an important reminder that we can only end AIDS together. Our rights are not open to negotiation. We are not asking for favours. Respecting our rights is good for not just our health, but for global public health.
If public policies had more consideration for us, this would go hand in hand with greater funding allocated to us. Regardless of their size, community-based organisations are in the best position to implement actions among key populations. This proximity improves efficiency of prevention tools. That is why it is important to allocate funds directly to the communities who need them. Even if this means giving them support in managing their resources, it is crucial that the final beneficiaries have access to available funds.
Finally, I would like to finish by highlighting how important it is for the scientific community to put key populations at the centre of research design and implementation. Our “lay man” expertise is precious to increase the relevance of projects. Why is this? Because we are closer to reality, to “real life”. We are in a better position to find the right words, to ask meaningful questions, to pinpoint material, linguistic, moral, practical and psychological pressures. If we are involved meaningfully, not only would research be adapted better to reality and needs, but the results would be meaningful to key populations themselves. It is about mobilising them and broadening the social base, which is indispensable for social change. I believe that research is an act of hope. Research can allow us to beat the odds and decide that all is not over. There are always possibilities.
One way you can help us keep the possibilities open to many people still without a voice, and unreached by services, is to sign the Paris Community Declaration. As we come to the close of the conference today, I urge you to join key affected populations living with or affected by HIV. I call on you to join in our common march for equity, solidarity, and right to health.