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IX International HIV/AIDS Conference – Barcelona, Spain

 I was so excited. I was going to attend an International HIV/AIDS conference for the very first time and that too in Barcelona, Spain. Not bad for someone who has been working for only a year. Visions of matadors in all their splendour and viciously violent bull fights were coming to mind ever since I first heard that I was going to Spain. Filled with dutiful purpose and a tremendous enthusiasm, perhaps naivety, I arrived in Spain. I was all set to have an experience. And what an experience…

 Fifteen thousand people from all parts of the world, sharing their stories, their successes and failures. It’s enough to drive one crazy with the sheer barrage of information. The first day was spent just walking about the Fira de Barcelona (conference venue) gaping at the magnitude and size of all the preparations and pinching myself every two minutes. It could have been a dream. It almost was since I encountered many problems while making my arrangements. It was only one week before the conference date that I got clearance to attend it and then my family members, office colleagues and I went into a frenzy to get me to Barcelona in time. Anyway, that’s all past tense since I made it irrespective of many hurdles.

 The whole experience was overwhelming in so many ways that it is difficult to know where to start. There was so much to learn and so many great people to learn from. More than 50 % of the participants were people living with AIDS, with a very small percentage of my fellow NGO representatives. The rest were mainly medical personnel and government representatives, including our beloved Shatrugan Sinha who made a short, uninspiring speech at the India Satellite meeting.

 The conference turned out to be very medical in its approach, with an extremely sad declaration by Johns Hopkins University's Robert Siliciano, MD, PhD. He made it clear that no drug will ever cure a person of HIV infection. The hope that remains is that new drugs and new immune-based treatments can keep HIV-infected people AIDS-free for the rest of their lives. There were many encouraging progress reports on the new drugs, for example the T 20 that will prevent the HIV virus from infecting new cells.

 Unexpectedly, the most interesting conversations took place in the hallway, in the bathroom or on your way home. Majority of the participants were crushed into the exhibition stands, fighting each other for free coffee or a free pen. While I was extremely surprised by this unusually cavalier attitude by the generally spendthrift NGOs, I was assured by many fellow participants that this was the norm. People come to these conferences with the sole purpose of networking. Very few seem to realise or even value the immense proportions of money spent on their informal chats and sight seeing plans.

 Herein lay my own conflict. Does one follow one’s conscience and dutifully attend boring sessions or does not directly delve into the throng of people outside and attempt to further one’s own or the organisation’s viewpoints amongst those who share similar goals. Which would prove to be a greater disservice to my organisation, which has invested in me and made it possible for me to attend? 

Perhaps I am depicting a dismal picture of such conferences which isn’t entirely fair. Conferences such as these give tremendous opportunities to young people from different circles of life to interact and learn from each other. Valuable experiences and lessons learnt are shared, which can prove to change your whole perspective of your work, life, issues and people. For me personally, I have developed a great respect for those living with HIV/AIDS. Unconsciously, when you work in this field of social work, you see your target population in a very scientific manner which is devoid of an emotional component. I saw the very human aspect of living with AIDS for the first time. You read books, you watch documentaries, but nothing has a greater impact than actual conversation and touch to convince you of harsh realities.  

Another understanding developed was on male prostitutes (those who want to be politically correct can read this in whichever way they like). During a very interesting dialogue with someone working with them, I discovered that not only is there a thriving demand for them, but also that they are even more marginalised than women in prostitution. While this seems impossible, it is essentially the truth. Irrespective of whether they are exercised or used correctly, we have rights and laws which protect women. On the other hand, we do not have any such laws for men, which leave them with even less negotiating power. A very seedy picture of Bombay was drawn for me as an incident was recounted, where a young boy was picked up by a ´Seth´ who had his fun and then took the boy home for his wife. This is the Bombay we love and I honestly wonder how well we know the city. This is just one incident and every young boy and girl on the street has a similar or god forbid, worse story. Sometimes this field can be very emotionally taxing, because all you ever seem to hear are desperate stories of violence, betrayal and pain.  

Worse still are promises made which are never kept. People in pain are generally resilient because they have faith and hope which keeps them alive. When this faith is broken, it’s a fate worse than death. In this conference I have heard so many promises. Promises of support, financial and otherwise, by those who could change the face of this epidemic. All these promises have been made before and seldom honoured. Similar promises were made two years ago in Durban at the previous international conference and they still remain promises. Bill Clinton made a heart rending speech in which he gave several interesting suggestions and promised his support. His imaginative speech included the highly philanthropic concept of rich countries like the US making up the deficit needed to touch the 10 billion mark needed for treatment of those infected with HIV. For a man no longer in a capacity of any policy making, he seemed to have a lot to say about how things should be done. It was a well written speech, made especially to rouse the newly invigorated activists. Designed to get applause, he got a standing ovation. A few minutes later when you actually consider everything he said, you see it as it really is. A speech, no more no less. Some more empty words to add to the growing frustrations of anyone working on the issues of HIV/AIDS.  

The former Prime Minister of Canada, made some interesting comments on the need for intelligent and responsible leadership. She also stressed the importance of an increase in the participation of women in leadership and the dignity and general advancement of women in this context. India’s contribution on this discussion on the impact on leadership was left in the hands on the former PM, Mr Gujral. He made me want to disown my citizenship and crawl under the seat, as he went on and on about Gandhiji and leprosy with no apparent connection to HIV. It was quite disastrous as he took it upon himself to talk for the longest amount of time, even after being warned by the moderator to keep it short. There was also a horrendous moment when I thought he was going to burst into song as he talked about the song, `we shall overcome´. Thankfully, he was satisfied with just talking and you could hear a collective sigh of relief from all the Indians in the room.

 An another shameful discovery was that while India has the second largest number of people living with the dreaded virus, second only to Sub-Saharan Africa, we receive only a small percentage of funds from international agencies. The Global Fund has committed more than 70% of its 2 billion dollars to Africa and India does not even figure on the list of countries being supported. This is irrespective of our large numbers and failing economy. This is an example of the poor quality of representation that Indians have in the international funding market. Are we all sleeping? 

To come back to the conference itself, for what it was worth, it was an experience. A truly invaluable one, for one as young as I. It was a chance in a lifetime and I am ever so grateful to all who helped me attend it. As a conference, I think it lacked any kind of decision making ability or even a united sense of understanding of any issue or stand. More than just a social meeting place, such conferences can provide opportunities for actual policies or at least a movement towards the framing of the same. The epidemic is growing faster than we can arrange such chances and it’s essential that we do not waste any more time and come together. We need each other and for once, individual gain should be set aside. So much was left undone, so much more could have been accomplished. Perhaps in two years at Bangkok, at the next such conference. As I continue to work with my beautiful children affected by this social and physical illness, I live in eternal hope. Someday, I pray soon, I will have good news for them.  

- Amrita Bhende, daughter of rock star Nandu Bhende, MA in Social Work from Tata Institute of Social Work, currently working with Committed Communities Development Trust (NGO) as Coordinator of Project Dancing Feat – using dance as a form of therapy for over 700 children affected by HIV/AIDS, in collaboration with the Shiamak Davar Institute for the Performing Arts. 

    Amrita in Barcelona

Sarita (Colleague) Roger (Setem – Spanish Volunteer) and Me, chillin’ over a Spanish Omlette and coffee.

     Me at La Ramblas – pedestrian street in Barcelona with lots of shopping


     Nima Tai, Shalini, Steve, J, Sanjay, Ravi and me – enjoying good food and great Sangria!


          Dolors (Setem , Spanish Volunteer) and me outside a famous Gaudi building. The building is supposed to depict the waves of the sea.


     Andorra – just check out those mountains!!


     Party animals at 5 am – finally tired out!



Amrita in Israel

In Planet Hollywood - Tel Aviv!










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