The 22nd edition of the International Conference on AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections in Africa (ICASA 2023) was held in Harare, Zimbabwe, with the theme "AIDS Is Not Over: Address Inequalities, Accelerate Inclusion and Innovation”. ICASA is a biennial event that brings together thousands of activists, communities, UN partners, civil society, donors, key stakeholders, and governments to reflect on the diverse nature of the African region's HIV epidemic, as well as its unique responses to it.
In a powerful display of unity and determination, young people from across Africa and beyond joined forces in Zimbabwe to address the most pressing issues of inequality that hinder our progress towards ending the AIDS epidemic.
"To end AIDS, the path forward is clear: every step counts, and the journey is incomplete until the voices and actions of every young people are not only acknowledged but actively embraced. Inclusion matters, in every sense of its word and meaning.”
Youth-led movements are truly leading the HIV and SRH response. Here is how.
Y+ Global provided scholarships to around 70 young advocates, including young people living with HIV and young key populations, to participate in person at this year's conference and engage in the various activities and events outlined in the Y+ Global ICASA Road Map.
Prior to the official opening of ICASA 2023, Y+ Global, together with the READY Movement, Frontline AIDS, and various partners, including the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Maputo, CANGO, PATA, REPSSI, Zvandiri, and other supporters, organised a successful inaugural READY Summit. Over 150 youth delegates participated in the Summit, reviewing the progress made in HIV and SRH response since the Pre-AIDS 2022 regional consultation, discussing the challenges young people still face in their daily lives, and aligning advocacy priorities throughout the conference.
The event united diverse groups of young people to share their stories and experiences, working together towards ending AIDS while also addressing the underlying inequalities that contribute to the epidemic. The Summit also marked a milestone in the READY Movement's journey with the official launch of the READY To Evolve Strategy, an interim strategy to guide the movement for the coming years. The Summit concluded with a gala fundraising event to support the cause and further amplify the message and power of the movement.
To kick off the conference, a demonstration led by HER Voice Fund showcased the unwavering commitment of adolescent girls and young women (AGYW) from diverse backgrounds to champion their health and rights. In a session with ViiV Healthcare, the Global Fund, READY Movement, and Frontline, AGYW had an opportunity to engage in a constructive discussion about leadership and share valuable insights gained from the GC7 cycle, exploring best practices for the implementation of grants for AGYW-led/serving organisations. Here, they announced an extension of the three-year HER Voice Fund partnership with ViiV Healthcare Positive Action and The Global Fund, which was formed in 2019.
"This partnership means so much to so many. We will continue to inspire, empower and be a force of good and change for all adolescent girls and young women, in all their diversity, everywhere. We are honoured and proud to be in this partnership with ViiV Healthcare and The Global Fund."
Maximina JokonyaInterim Executive Director of Y+ Global and Her Voice Fund Coordinator
During the opening ceremony of ICASA, various safe activism-based events were planned by HER Voice Fund, with SpeakUp Africa, Voix EssentiELLES and adolescent girls and young women in all their diversity. However, despite a near-complete ban on protesting at ICASA, a peaceful demonstration occurred in the exhibition hall as the activists were not allowed to enter the main auditorium. The activism of AGYW culminated when Yolanda Muyengwa, a community representative, presented a declaration document to Winne Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS, during the opening ceremony.
In partnership with UNICEF, UNFPA, and AfriYan ESA, Y+ Global co-convened a program session on 'Youth Leading the Change' to highlight emerging young leaders who have made significant contributions to the HIV and SRH response at various levels in East and Southern Africa. Additionally, the UNITED! Movement organised two skills-building sessions at the Y+ Global booth in the community village to enhance the advocacy skills of young advocates and activists and to share skills on organisational strengthening and development.
In parallel, the 'Engage Us. Our Health. Our Rights.' campaign was launched at the community village main stage by the Vibrant and Young Voices Consortium in collaboration with CCABA and PATA, with support from the Robert Carr Fund. The campaign aimed to showcase the benefits of meaningfully engaging young people in healthcare. Art pieces from a competition launched in September were displayed at the booth, showcasing illustrations, paintings, and stories depicting young people's engagement in health and its benefits.
On December 8th, at the end of ICASA, Y+ Global and GNP+ organised a graduation ceremony for the Young Emerging Leaders (YEL), marking the end of the program's first cohort. The YEL program is a collaborative project between GNP+ and Y+ Global that aims to empower young people living with and affected by HIV to participate in global decision-making platforms, which is supported by Love Alliance. Y+ Global and GNP+ trained and mentored thirteen young advocates from 10 countries throughout the year on topics related to HIV treatment, funding flows, advocacy and more.
There is no room for exclusion. What needs to change for future conferences and how organisers like ICASA can do better.
The conference, which brought together activists, experts, and policymakers, took a controversial turn as reports of human rights violations and the suppression of queer identities and voices surfaced. Attendees raised concerns about similar violations during previous ICASA conferences hosted in Zimbabwe.
ICASA faced several challenges, some of which were anticipated while others were not. These challenges included visa approval delays, high registration costs, and difficulties in securing flights for scholarship beneficiaries, especially for young people. On the day of the youth pre-conference, various sessions were merged into one to accommodate high-level officials, which negatively impacted the representation of young key populations' voices at the conference.
Despite facing numerous challenges, young advocates and activists showed unwavering determination to achieve their objectives. They pushed forward, demonstrating solidarity, unity, and understanding of critical issues that affect the health and well-being of sex workers, people who use drugs, and other key populations. They also stood up for LGBTIQ+ rights and raised awareness to counteract the anti-gender movement.
“Suppressing the voices of communities affected by HIV, including the queer community, is not just an injustice; it's a betrayal of the very essence of progress in the HIV response. True advancement requires the inclusion of every voice, and by silencing these narratives, we undermine the foundations of a united, effective response to HIV/AIDS”
Youth delegate at ICASA
In the future, ICASA organisers should ensure the safety and security of all communities by selecting venues and host countries that uphold human rights. These actions not only contradict human rights principles but also impede the conference's ability to address the diverse needs of those affected by HIV/AIDS.
Youth activists and civil society are determined to hold ICASA organisers accountable for their actions, urging them to prioritise human rights, inclusivity, and the voices of marginalised communities in future conferences. As they continue to organise and operate biennial conferences that are founded on progress and equality, more must be done to ensure the safety of communities that continue to lead the response.
This united front of activists, both young and older, serves as a poignant reminder that progress in the fight against AIDS and social inequality must be rooted in principles of justice, respect, and dignity for all. The future of the response to HIV/AIDS depends on the collective efforts of those who are committed to building a society where every voice is heard and every individual is treated with dignity and compassion. Y+ Global is unwavering in its commitment to achieving these objectives.