What should the Commission on AIDS in Asia recommend?

By conducting what amounts to a simple and open consultation on key regional AIDS issues and priorities, the civil society representative to the independent Commission on AIDS in Asia, Frika Chia Iskandar, has moved expectations about civil society participation up a notch. More than five hundred people from twenty-five Asian countries have already added their opinions and support. Last week, Ms Iskandar presented a summary of the responses so far to the commission members, during a meeting in Beijing, China (20 July). The initial on-line consultation survey will now be followed by a series of key informant interviews, and will conclude with a final consultation report at the end of August. Later this year, the AIDS commission will recommend to regional governments a set of measures designed to mobilize leaders to adequately respond to the epidemic. By adding over 500 civil society voices, participants in the consultation are not just bringing their issues to the table - they are also paving the way towards greater accountability for the Commission itself. Participants include stakeholders from diverse backgrounds, such as advocacy, activism, community mobilization and services, information dissemination, direct support to people living with HIV (PLHIV) and affected communities, education and the health/medical sector.

What did they say?

Not surprisingly they agreed that AIDS is not yet a high enough priority for political parties in the region. Respondents suggested three main reasons for this lack of commitment: Insufficient partnerships between government and civil society; lack of a clear and coherent framework for civil society to hold governments accountable on AIDS; and inadequate financing for government-led HIV and AIDS initiatives. Specific steps recommended to ensure greater accountability of national leaders were: More open consultation with civil society including PLHIV and affected communities; strengthened capacities of existing national/regional networks for independent assessment and monitoring of national responses to HIV; and establishment of a regional 'AIDS Watch' monitoring body.

Respondents added that civil society has a particularly key role in four main areas: Making sure people get information that helps them keep their governments and officials accountable for their HIV and AIDS commitments; providing direct targeted services to the most vulnerable individuals and populations; promoting accountability by monitoring HIV and AIDS programmes and service coverage; as well as participating in AIDS programme and policy-making, and evaluating those decisions. Other aspects of the consultation covered issues such as how to address HIV-related stigma - one of the major challenges faced by PLHIV in the region, particularly when it occurs within health care settings. On the theme of legal reforms that are needed to create supportive policies for HIV programmes and services, a significant majority of respondents felt that the main HIV-related priority should be setting up legal means of preventing stigma and discrimination of PLHIV in healthcare, faith-based, workplace and family settings. The last question of the survey invited respondents to offer their views openly: "What measures would you specifically request the Commission to consider in preparing its recommendations? And why?"

As we approach the 8th International Conference on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, to be held in Sri Lanka later this month, and as the 2008 UNGASS reviews of national progress against AIDS also draw closer, this is a vital question for all of us in the region to consider. Footnote: If you have not completed the on-line consultation on AIDS in Asia, you still can add your views here.

Bobby Ramakant-CNS