Next Sunday thousands of HIV activists, politicians and professionals will gather in Washington DC to assess the global state of the pandemic, advances in treatment and care, and assert their collective vision for the future.
That Aids 2012, the 19th international Aids conference, is being held in Washington is particularly resonant. Until Barack Obama overturned a 22-year-old ban in 2009, people living with HIV were denied entry to the US.
The prevalence of HIV in the city itself is also astonishing – not only is it the highest HIV rate in America, it is one of the highest in the world, rivalling areas of sub-Saharan Africa. While HIV is often associated with specific regions, the reality is that it is a global pandemic, with its profound impact felt globally, including in the UK.
In some areas of our country, especially London, HIV prevalence rates are higher than in countries more regularly associated with the epidemic such as Thailand, and UK rates continue to rise. Although medication to control the virus is readily accessible, one in four people living with HIV are not aware that they have the virus, and those who are often contend with poverty, social isolation and the impact of the stigma surrounding the condition – a stigma that is still active in workplaces, communities and schools.
A group of young people living with the condition from the London-based HIV charity Body & Soul are very aware of the impact of HIV and stigma. They will be taking their own brand of activism and a much-needed youth perspective to the conference.
Since 1996, Body & Soul has been a trailblazer in providing bespoke psychosocial support to children, teenagers and families living with HIV. We have built a community of members who inspire and support one another in a safe space. It’s a place where they can share hopes and anxieties as well as accessing diverse professional support, from counselling to CV workshops, legal advice, sex and relationships discussions and parenting forums.
Body & Soul’s expertise in working with young people living with HIV led to the development in 2011 of its campaign Life in my Shoes (Lims), which will be the focus of the group’s activities in Washington. It is a pioneering project that they hope will engender empathy among all young people (not just those personally affected by HIV), encouraging them to accept and embrace difference.
Lims is a sophisticated multiplatform campaign boasting a short film, photographs shot by Rankin and endorsements from the likes of Annie Lennox, Dr Christian Jessen and Blake Harrison of The Inbetweeners. When the educational resource central to the campaign is launched later this year, students will take part in classes that are engaging and informative.
Miles away from uncomfortable sex education lessons, these sessions will inspire young people to improve their knowledge of HIV while promoting increased understanding of life in one another’s shoes.
The centrepiece of Lims is Undefeated, a 35-minute film charting a day in the shoes of a London schoolgirl, and drawing directly from experiences of members of Teen Spirit, Body & Soul’s group for 13-to-19-year-olds affected by HIV. Premiered in May at the Cannes film festival, it will be screened in Washington, allowing their message of empathy to reach beyond UK audiences.
The film shows the secrecy and courage demanded from such young people. For Peter, one of the Lims ambassadors attending the conference, this is why the campaign is so powerful and why it has the potential to inspire change.
“At school, I’d overhear people joking about catching Aids or worrying they’d get HIV from kissing,” he says. “I’d want to correct them but worried I’d be giving away my own status by doing so. For thousands of young people in the UK, we’ve already begun the process of changing minds and attitudes, and I can’t wait to start spreading the Lims message internationally.”
The conference theme of Aids 2012 is “Turning the tide together”. Peter and the others travelling to Washington hope to be at the forefront of a movement that seeks to transform attitudes and inspire change in the UK, and globally.