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The 17th International AIDS Conference Highlights Human Rights Need For HIV Prevention

The 17th International AIDS Conference (IAC), convened in Mexico City, Mexico from August 3–8 008, brought over 22,000 people including world leaders, policymakers, advocates, academics, and scientists committed in the global effort to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The IAC, the world’s largest HIV forum, is organized by the International AIDS Society and occurs every two years.  This year’s conference, under the theme “Universal Action Now,” called upon governments to commit to universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, and care in services worldwide.  At the heart of the IAC was the Global Village, an area of over 8,000 square meters open to everyone including the general public, where lively discussions on the grassroots successes and losses in the HIV/AIDS community took place. 

The IAC has an incredible scope and influence on HIV and AIDS policy work domestically and abroad.  As the world’s largest international forum for HIV/AIDS issues, it helps incorporate the many cultural and political variables that factor into establishing HIV/AIDS strategy and framework into policy.  Most importantly, this year’s IAC emphasized policy work combating the HIV/AIDS epidemic in groups of people who are more often than others denied their human rights such as men who have sex with men (MSM), commercial sex workers (CSW), and women and girls. 

Various sessions throughout the conference highlighted the needs of these high risk groups.  One of the larger sessions dedicated to the topic of HIV among MSM worldwide, “The Invisible Men: Gay Men & Other Men who have Sex with Men in Global HIV/AIDS Epidemic,” discussed what is being done and can be done for MSM in HIV prevention, treatment, and care programs.[i] According to Jeff O’Malley from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the UNDP is developing a strategy on this issue to be discussed at the next UNAIDS Board meeting at the end of this year. 

A number of sessions at the IAC focused on the decriminalization of voluntary commercial sex work and discussed concerted strategies to reduce the stigmatization that both sex workers and those NGOs who work with them on HIV prevention tend to face.  Elena Reynaga of RedTraSex pointed to criminalization of sex work as a driver of the epidemic, and argued that countries that penalize and stigmatize sex workers contribute to higher rates of HIV prevalence.[ii] Sex workers who attended the AIDS Conference advocated for governments and international policy bodies to recognize voluntart sex work as a legitimate profession.[iii] In other panels, advocates emphasized the need for HIV-prevention programs to respect the human rights of sex workers and for policymakers to stop conflating sex work with sex trafficking or sexual violence.[iv]

The IAC also discussed how rampant gender inequality around the world has continued to disproportionately place the HIV/AIDS epidemic on women and girls.  At one of the closing sessions, Zonibel Woods of the Ford Foundation noted that from sexual relationships to access, to education, property, and inheritance rights, when women are denied their most basic human rights, they are made more vulnerable to HIV.[v]  

The IAC is a showcase of the most current and innovative thinking on combating the HIV/AIDS epidemic in both research and policymaking. While this year’s IAC theme of “Universal Access Now” has many political and societal obstacles to realization, advocates worldwide remain committed to translating what was learned at the IAC into real policy outcomes in their communities.

The next IAC will be held in Vienna, Austria in July, 2010.  For more information, please visit





[i] Jeffrey Stanton “MSM in the Global AIDS Epidemic” The Foundation for AIDS Research (amFAR), Caucus for Evidence-Based Prevention Newsletter #10 – August 5th, accessed 20 August 2008, 2

[ii] Daily Roundup, Wednesday, August 6,, accessed 20 August 2008,

[iii] Becky Johnson, Sex Workers at IAC: "Listen to Us!", 7 August 2008, RH Reality Check, accessed 20 August 2008,

[iv] Kelly Castagnaro,  Sex Work, HIV/AIDS and Human Rights: From Criminalization to Protection , 8 August 2008, RH Reality Check, accessed 20 August 2008,

[v] Daily Roundup, Friday, August 8,, accessed 20 August 2008,