When I was a little girl growing up in Bangladesh, my sisters and I were obsessed with England’s Princess Diana. We used to spend hours studying any pictures of her we could get our hands on, try to get our hair cut like hers, and attempt to get our local tailor to make us dresses like hers. Yes, I know there could not be a greater cliché than little girls gushing over a princess, but Diana’s human rights activism intrigued me well into my adult years as well.
As a seven year-old girl in Dhaka in 1987, I didn’t know much about HIV/AIDS, but hardly anyone knew anything about the virus at that time. The lack of knowledge compounded stigma and discrimination towards those infected with the virus. It was that year, the height of the global AIDS crisis that Princess Diana taught the world a valuable lesson: When it comes to fighting AIDS, we must first move beyond our own discrimination.
During a visit to British hospital that year, the Princess quietly removed her glove before shaking hands with a HIV-positive man, demonstrating in one swift gesture that the virus that terrified the world, and the people who had it, needed our understanding, not our ignorant fear. At that time, the average person still did not know that AIDS could not be passed through human touch alone.
Despite the fact that HIV/AIDS has become one of the most studied viruses in the world, international policies still exist that institutionalize discrimination against HIV positive people. And until just two years ago the United States was guilty of perpetuating fear and stigmatization of people with HIV/AIDS.
The International AIDS 2012 Conference being held in Washington this week is historic for many reasons, but just the fact that it is being held in the US is historic in itself. The last time this conference took place in the States was in 1990, but just three years prior to that the US Congress enacted legislation banning the entrance of all HIV-infected persons over the age of 14 years. While a waiver was issued for conference participants, the ban was not lifted. Every single IAS conference since has taken place outside of the US.
Two years ago, the Obama Administration finally overturned this outdated and straight up bigoted travel ban. It paved the way for AIDS 2012 to take place in Washington, DC, and was a significant step forward for the US, one of the largest donors to global health programs around the world, and the single largest donor to global AIDS programs.
As the conference wraps up this week, it is important to reflect not only on the end of this policy, and a new era of AIDS, but to remember that ignorance and discrimination will only get in the way of effectively tackling the global pandemic. Diana may have showed us this over two decades ago, but it has taken us awhile to catch up.
If you are in the Washington, D.C. area, you can attend the remaining Global Village sessions of the XIX International AIDS Conference, particularly those pertaining to women; check out the schedule here. The remaining plenaries will broadcast online [PDF].
For updates on the International AIDS Conference, check out the official twitter @AIDS2012.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.