As the world mourns the passing of global hero and icon, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, AIDS activists are paying homage to this great man at the 17th Annual International Conference Against AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA) in Cape Town. On Saturday evening, at the opening of the conference, South Africa’s Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe said that Mandela’s legacy will continue to echo justice, peace, democracy, equality, non-racialism and non-sexism across the ages.

He said that those dedicated to the fight against HIV were sad of the passing of Mandela also because “in Madiba, we had a fearless partner in the fight against this epidemic,” he said “We know fully well the positive impact he made in our efforts to fight back this scourge both during and after his term of Office as President of the Republic of South Africa.”

Michel Sidibé UNAIDS Executive Director, told the ICASA attendees on Saturday that “Africa shall not be afraid of calling for ending AIDS.” He said, “AIDS in our continent is still an unfinished business.” Suggesting that the HIV and AIDS global community should draw on big dreams like that of John F. Kennedy’s dream of getting a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, he said, “I believe that by 2030, we can end AIDS. Yes HIV may be with us…until we achieve a cure, the vaccine, but the disease that HIV causes need not be with us.”

Sonke Gender Justice thinks that in order to achieve this dream, it is important to look at why men are not being adequately reached by HIV and Health Services, arguing that to get to zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination, zero AIDS-related deaths, and now Sidibé’s new added goal of zero AIDS, we must also get HIV and Health services to men. 

A growing body of research data, including important studies by the University of Cape Town shows

Data from South Africa’s groundbreaking HIV testing campaign in which nearly 14 million people were tested reveal that only 30% of those tested were men. Preliminary reports from the National Department of Health show that men make up no more than 40% of those on treatment.

“Too many men are being left out of HIV services,” says Bafana Khumalo, Co-Founder of Sonke Gender Justice, and Chair of the South African National AIDS Council’s Men’s Sector (SANAC) “Our new National Strategic Plan on HIV calls for attention to be paid to increasing men’s use of HIV services, but we’re not seeing enough action on that yet.” Khumalo explains that it’s necessary to work on both demand and supply of health services. “In South Africa, and globally, we need campaigns that encourage men to value health seeking rather than see it as a sign of weakness,” he says.

Sisonke Msimang, Sonke’s Senior Programme Specialist says that concern about men’s low use of HIV services is an issue of concern for everyone, and should not be seen to detract attention from the urgent need to address women’s HIV related needs, explaining that the two are very much interconnected. “When health systems fail to engage men adequately, both men and women suffer,“ she says. Msimang explains that HIV positive men who don’t know their status are less likely to use condoms and more likely to have multiple partners than men who know that they are HIV positive, and that they are also more likely to become sick and die unnecessarily.

As Sidibé proposed his dream to end AIDS by 2030, he said “Let us bear in mind that we shall not live on our memories, but on our dreams,” and he quoted Mandela: “One cannot be prepared for something by secretly believing that it will not happen.” Sidibé said ending AIDS by 2030, is “possible, and within our reach,” and proposed that  “Together, let us make it happen, and let us make it the legacy of Mandela.”

Sonke Gender Justice is hosting two events which will look at how we need to engage men if we are to make this dream a reality, responding to the facts which show that men’s low utilisation of HIV testing, treatment and care, particularly in Africa, is poorly understood and bad for everyone’s health. Panelists will discuss interventions to challenge harmful social norms, improve men’s health seeking behaviour and address related structural barriers in the health system and policies, and how to make sure that health services also “get to men.”
Six years ago, on World AIDS Day, Mandela addressed the 46664 concert – the campaign to fight HIV and AIDS that used his prison number: “If we have to stop the AIDS epidemic from expanding we have to break the cycle of new HIV infections.”
“Tonight, we want to urge all of you to make a personal commitment to stop the spread of this disease. Together we have the power to change the course of destiny,” said Mandela to the crowd, “Yes, big ambitious plans are needed to deal with the pandemic, but what really matters are the small acts of kindness and courage…such as protecting yourself. Talk openly about HIV/AIDS. Urge people around you to act differently to people living with HIV. Break the cycle of violence against women and children.”

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