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The global fight against HIV/AIDS has seen recent hard-won breakthroughs, including the discovery of the genetic hiding place of the virus by doctors in Australia, a 50-percent drop in new infections across 25 low- and middle-income countries, and an increase of 63 percent in the number of people with access to HIV medication.
But ending stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV has proved more resistant, particularly so for those who are part of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender or Queer (LGBTQ) community."Right now we are on the brink of reaching the response’s full potential to save lives." -- Michel Sidibé
Since its inception in 1995, UNAIDS has been a leader in strengthening the response to HIV/AIDS, as well as providing access to health care and assistance to those living with the virus and in working with grassroots communities to help them reduce their vulnerabilities.
With May 17 marking the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, IPS spoke with Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS, about how discrimination affects efforts to stem the spread of HIV/AIDS, how that fight is moving forward, and the post-2015 development agenda.
Excerpts from the interview follow.
Q: What is the impact of criminalisation of homosexuality on the policies UNAIDS is implementing?
A: UNAIDS is seeking to advance the vision of Zero new HIV infections, Zero discrimination and Zero AIDS-related deaths. To get there, we need to have universal access HIV prevention, treatment, care and support.
Some of the populations most highly affected by HIV are gay men and other men who have sex with men, as well as transgender people. If criminalised, there is virtually no way they can access the HIV information, commodities and services they need to avoid HIV infection and to stay alive and healthy if HIV positive. Nor can they mobilise their communities and support each other to avoid risky behaviour.
Furthermore, criminalisation of homosexuality is both driven by discrimination and leads to discrimination. Many gay men living with HIV face double discrimination – for being gay and for living with HIV. We will never reach the goal of zero discrimination as long as homosexuality is criminalised.
Q: With 76 countries still criminalising homosexuality, how do you plan to reach out to LGBT communities in those countries? And worldwide?
A: It is very difficult to reach LGBT communities in these countries. However, at the same time, in such places, HIV has often been an important entry point, sometimes the only entry point, for the health and human rights of LGBT people.
While laws criminalise, the public health sector has often understood how important it is to reach these populations. They have estimated their population’s size, done epidemiological studies, included them in national AIDS responses and have implemented tailored programmes. We support them to do so, regularly convening leaders of the LGBT community with government to work together on strategies to respond to HIV.
We also ask our staff to work with the ministry of justice and with police to enable these public health responses even where homosexuality is criminalised. We need a great expansion of programmes, greater protection of rights and attention to the new and younger generation of LGBT people who need access to HIV services.
Q: Do you have a specific campaign focused on the LGBT community?
A: We do not have a specific campaign, but we are working on the HIV-related rights and needs of the LGBT community from many angles. In terms of financing the AIDS response, we are asking countries to be much smarter in their HIV investments, in particular, to put resources and programmes towards populations highly affected by HIV.
In terms of access to health services, we are seeking to expand HIV prevention and treatment to all people in need and know that many LGBT people are not getting access to these services. We hope to improve their access through promoting more user-friendly health services as well as greater outreach programmes to their communities.
In terms of human rights, we promote the fact that they, like all people, have human rights. Like the U.N. secretary-general and the high commissioner for human rights, we call for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, as well as for their rights to non-discrimination, freedom from violence, health and participation and inclusion.
Q: What is the UNAIDS agenda for the post-2015 new development goals?
A: UNAIDS remains firmly committed to supporting countries to achieve universal access to HIV prevention, treatment care and support. This means ensuring that everyone in need has access to HIV services without stigma and without discrimination.
Although there has been much progress in ensuring that even the most marginalised in society have access there is still a lot of work to do. To end stigma and discrimination around HIV we work with a broad range of partners including, community based organisations, faith-based organisations, political leaders, scientific committees, law enforcement bodies and many other groups.
Our response focuses on expanding the evidence base and increasing political engagement; engaging stakeholders to invest in programmes to reduce stigma and discrimination and increase access to justice; strengthening technical support for addressing punitive laws, practices, stigma and discrimination and strengthening support to civil society.
Q: There have been some breakthroughs in medical research on HIV and AIDS in recent months. Can we hope for a world free of AIDS in a few generations?
A: HIV has been one of the defining issues of our time and I strongly believe that we can end the AIDS epidemic. Right now we are on the brink of reaching the response’s full potential to save lives – so now more than ever countries need to commit to action and look to a future without AIDS.
With the disqualification of former president and current chair of the Expediency Council Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani by a vetting body, the Guardian Council, Iran’s presidential campaign is opening with many in the country in a state of shock.
Although the eight qualified candidates offer somewhat of a choice given their different approaches to the economy and foreign policy, the disqualification of Rafsanjani has once again raised the spectre that the conservative establishment intends to manipulate the electoral process in such a way that only a conservative candidate will win when voters cast their ballots Jun. 14.
Rafsanjan’s candidacy, which received solid support from former reformist president Mohammad Khatami, had created hope among a section of the Iranian population — unhappy with the policies of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — that a real contest over the direction of the country was possible.
In his first statement after declaring his candidacy, Rafsanjani had made clear that returning the country towards “moderation” and away from the “extremism” that had taken hold in both domestic and foreign policy was his objective.
His stature and name recognition had immediately catapulted him as the most formidable candidate against the conservative establishment.
The possibility that the Guardian Council would disqualify a man who is the appointed chair of the Expediency Council and an elected member of the Clerical Council of Experts was deemed unfathomable to many.
In the words of conservative MP Ali Mottahari, who had pleaded with Rafsanjani to register as a candidate, “if Hashemi is disqualified, the foundations of the revolution and the whole system of the Islamic Republic will be questioned.”
Rafsanjani’s unexpected disqualification poses a challenge for his supporters, who include centrists, reformists and even some middle-of-the-road conservatives such as Mottahari: who, if anyone, will they now support in the election?
The slate of approved candidates includes two individuals — former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani and former first vice president Mohammadreza Aref — who hold mostly similar views to Rafsanjani.
In fact, both had said that they would withdraw if Rafsanjani’s candidacy was approved. But neither is as well known as the former president and they will now have to compete against each other in attracting likeminded voters.
Rowhani has chosen to run as an independent, while Aref is running as a reformist. While Rafsanjani’s candidacy had energised and unified the reformists and centrists, the campaign of these two lesser known candidates may be cause for disunity and/or voter apathy.
A third candidate, Mohammad Gharazi — who may also have centrist tendencies — is even less known throughout the country.
He served first as the minister of petroleum and then post, telegraph, and telephone in the cabinet of then-prime minister Mir Hossein Mussavi — now under house arrest after his 2009 presidential bid — and then in Rafsanjani’s cabinet when he served as president.
But since 1997, Ghazari has not held public office. Furthermore, no one really knows his views or why he was qualified when several other ministers with more recent experience were not.
Reformist supporters, already distraught over the previous contested election and continued incarceration of candidates they voted for in 2009, may see Rafsanjani’s disqualification as yet another sign that their vote will not count.
Apathy or abstention in protest among supporters is now a real issue for the centrists and reformists. This challenge may — and only may — be overcome if one of the candidates agrees to withdraw in favour of the other and the popular former reformist president Khatami throws his support behind the unified candidate in the same way he did with the candidacy of Rafsanjani.
But even this may not be enough. The reality is that the low name recognition of both candidates limits the impact of such political manoeuvring and coalition-building by the reformists, especially if the conservative-controlled security establishment makes campaigning and the spread of information difficult. Already Aftab News, a website affiliated with Rowhani, has been blocked.
This leaves the competition among the other five candidates who come from the conservative bloc. One, former presidential candidate, Mohsen Rezaee, is also running as an independent and is both the most likely to last until Election Day and the least likely to garner many votes.
It is the competition among the other four conservative candidates — Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, former Parliamentary Speaker Gholamali Haddad Adel, and current nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili — that will in all likelihood determine the fate of the election.
If Rafsanjani had been qualified, there would have been an urge for unity among these candidates since, without such unity, the former president could have received the 50 percent plus one necessary to win in the first round.
Now, however, the same forces that had prevented the conservative candidates from rallying behind one candidate remain in play.
Polls published by various Iranian news agencies, although not very reliable, uniformly suggest that Qalibaf is the most popular conservative candidate because of his management of the Tehran megapolis and the vast improvement in the delivery of services he has overseen there.
But Qalibaf’s relative popularity has not yet been sufficient to convince other candidates to unite behind him. This may eventually happen after televised presidential debates if he does well in them and if Velayati and Haddad Adel drop out in his favour since, from the beginning, the three of them had agreed that eventually the most popular should stand on Election Day.
But there is no guarantee that this will happen. Velayati in particular has ambitions of his own and has implied that Leader Ali Khameni’s preference should be given at least as much weight as polls, giving rise to speculation that he is the Leader’s preferred candidate despite clear signs that he has not been able to create much excitement even among conservative voters.
Convincing the hard-line candidate Jalili to drop out in favour of Qalibaf will be even harder.
In fact, from now until Election Day there will probably be as much pressure on Qalibaf to drop out in favour of Jalili as the other way around in the hope that a unified conservative candidate can win in the first round, avoiding the risk of either Rowhani or Aref making it to the second round where the top two candidates will have to compete on Jun. 21.
Jalili is the least experienced — and well known — of all the conservative candidates and, in a campaign in which economy is the number one issue by far, there are real concerns regarding whether he is experienced enough to manage Iran’s deep economic problems.
But his late entry in the presidential race, minutes after Rafsanjani entered it, has also given rise to speculation that he, instead of Velayati, may be the Leader’s preferred choice.
What is not a subject of speculation is the fact that Jalili takes the hardest line of all the candidates.
His campaign slogan of “hope, justice, and resistance” suggests that he is the most likely to continue current policies, although perhaps with less bombast and populist flair than the current president.
As such, Jalili stands apart from the other seven candidates who will campaign on the need for both change and competent leadership.
Jalili jumped into the race at the last minute as a hard-line counter to Rafsanjani’s call for moderation. Ironically, with the latter’s disqualification, he now stands alone as the candidate whom others will try to mobilise voters against.
Amid warnings that Kenya’s agricultural water use is surpassing sustainable levels and adversely affecting food security, biodiversity researchers say that agrobiodiversity should be considered as a vital tool to combat this.
“In order to feed the nation, the country must explore agrobiodiversity, specifically (the growing of) vegetables and fruits, which have been neglected in favour of maize,” Mary Abukutsa-Onyango, a professor of horticulture at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, told IPS.
As climate change continues to wreak havoc on rainfall patterns, resulting in intermittent prolonged dry spells across this East African nation, vegetables present the best alternative to maize because they do not require large amounts of water.
The 2012/2013 Kenya country brief by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations stated that the “October to December ‘short-rains’ season performed poorly … (and) a series of dry spells also caused poor germination … leading to wilting and drying out of crops.”
According to the United States Agency for International Development Kenya, this nation is “classified among the most water scarce countries in the world.” And government statistics indicate that 13 million Kenyans lack access to improved water supply.
“In Kenya, and by extension Africa, desertification and water scarcity are a major threat to agriculture and to pastoralist communities. Strategies such as irrigation, water harvesting and conservation, and tree planting must be revamped,” Nashon Tado, of the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Horn of Africa and Yemen office, told IPS.
The Ministry of Agriculture says that at least 70 percent of Kenya’s agricultural production comes from smallholder farmers who farm on two to five acres of land. Of Kenya’s 42 million people, eight million households are involved in agriculture, with five million depending directly on it for their livelihoods.
But Kenya’s Food Security Outlook 2013, released on May 15 by the U.N. World Food Programme, confirmed that embracing other crops besides maize was improving food security here.
“Improved availability of green vegetables, green maize and legumes from early June through July is expected to diversify diets and sustain food consumption,” the report stated.
It makes sense that Kenyans should explore biodiversity. Kenya has ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity, the globally negotiated agreement committed to sustainable use of biodiversity. Consequently, agrobiodiversity is being touted as a solution to the biting water stresses facing Kenya.
“This year’s International Biodiversity Day’s theme is Water and Biodiversity and is very significant as the country tries to find innovative techniques and strategies to maximise water usage,” Naomi Chepkorir, an agricultural extension officer at the Ministry of Agriculture, in Kenya’s bread basket, Rift Valley province, told IPS.
Indigenous vegetables and fruits are easy to manage, can withstand high and unpredictable temperatures, and are known to have high nutritional value and contain high concentrates of micronutrients, including iron.
“Take the spider plant and African nightshade, which are found in parts of Western and Nyanza provinces, as well as across East Africa. They are known to be nutritious, medicinal and are very rich in iron, calcium, magnesium, anti-oxidants and fibre,” Abukutsa-Onyango said.
The spider plant is known to have high levels of beta-carotene, calcium, protein, magnesium, iron and vitamin C. The plant is also high in antioxidants, which may help prevent diseases like diabetes, cancer and heart disease.
Chepkorir said that generally vegetables have a shorter life cycle compared to other crops. They grow in a few weeks and require very little irrigation, hence allowing smallholder farmers to reap the benefits of their harvest earlier than they would if they planted a crop like maize – which takes up to three to four months to mature.
Abukutsa-Onyango agreed, adding that indigenous vegetables are able to adapt to climate change because they mature faster. She gave the example of the spider plant and the variety of amaranth that is indigenous to Africa, which can be harvested within three weeks of planting. She added that the slenderleaf ice plant could also withstand water deficit conditions.
Abukutsa-Onyango added that growing a diversity of indigenous vegetables and fruits “would not only address food security, but also nutrition and health security.
“People should eat a balanced diet, and currently Kenyans are consuming inadequate amounts of vegetables and fruits leading to an upsurge of diet-related diseases,” she said.
Good nutrition and healthy diets are important aspects in meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The eight ambitious goals, adopted by all U.N. member states in 2000, aim to curb poverty, disease and gender inequality.
According to the MDG Report 2010 “nutrition has long been seriously overlooked and underemphasised by donors and developing countries, despite good nutrition being a key enabler to meet almost every MDG.”
Yvonne Onyango, a nutritionist in Nairobi, explained: “If a child is not well fed in its first 1,000 days, its growth is affected and the damage is irreversible. The child will never rise to the potential that other children who are well nourished do.”
Government statistics show that about 35 percent of Kenyan children suffer from malnutrition, including iron deficiency anaemia.
But water is a significant aspect of food security and management of this resource requires cooperation from many levels, according to Phillip Muthee, from Kenya’s Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA).
KEPSA is the umbrella body of organised business associations, ranging from big to small enterprises in the country.
“When water is managed and shared cooperatively, it supports livelihoods, food security and the economy,” Muthee told IPS.
Muthee feared that Kenya’s new devolved system of government could lead to potential new conflicts around the provision of and access to water. Kenya is now implementing the new system, which allows for decisions affecting Kenya’s 47 counties to be taken at grassroots, as opposed to national, level.
“For instance, the government has already committed to make about one million hectares of land irrigable. But conflict may arise between the national and county governments regarding whose responsibility it is to ensure that this is done,” Muthee said.
He worried that if this happened “water will not reach the people at the grassroots level who need it, not just to feed themselves, but to feed the nation.”
Staring out at his golden wheat field with satisfaction, 50-year old Alamgir Akbar says with a sigh of relief: “We’ve had a good crop this season.”
The farmer has waited a long time to utter those words. A resident of a small rural community on the outskirts of the Ucchali village in the Soan Valley, a 737-square-metre expanse of farmland in the Khushab district of Pakistan’s Punjab province, he has spent five years battling the impacts of a prolonged drought.
With just 12,000 acres of irrigated farmland and only saltwater lakes dotting the landscape, the Valley, which borders the hills of Punjab’s famous Salt Range, is not ideal for practicing agriculture.
Residents traditionally relied on rainwater to recharge their roughly 3,000 community wells, but half a decade of drought in the 1990s brought farming to a standstill and pitched the region’s 150,000 residents into the vortex of poverty.
Farmers here operate smallholdings of no more than five hectares, cultivating crops like cauliflower on flat land as well as terraces and selling the produce in Punjab’s big cities like Lahore, Faisalabad, Sargodha and Gujrat.
Before the drought hit, a farmer could typically earn a net profit of 600 to 800 dollars in a 75-day cropping period, but lost a considerable amount of this income on hiring trucks to transport goods to urban markets.
As the rains became increasingly infrequent, farmers were forced to bore tube wells, some as deep as 200 or 300 feet. This new system required investments in turbines to pump out the water, which in turn generated huge energy costs, as the 26-horsepower machines guzzled gallon after gallon of diesel.
Unable to afford the necessary investments, farmers turned to relatives for loans and sold their animals or other assets to continue farming.
When villagers began to chop down trees for fuel it sparked a process of deforestation, which then “accelerated the rate of soil erosion” and increased the risk of prolonged drought, Gulbaz Afaqi, director of the Soan Valley Development Programme (SVDP), told IPS.
Yields dropped, and farmers like Akbar began to despair.
Bringing back water
Driving down the mud track to Ucchali, the tranquil and almost picture-perfect pastoral scene is marred by solar panels.
But what outsiders see as an eyesore, villagers see as an angel of mercy. Owned and operated collectively by 12 families, these three-kilowatt panels are helping to pump water – and new life – into the farmers’ fields.
The landscape is once again alive with patches of cauliflower, coriander, chillies and potatoes as a pilot project spearheaded by the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (PPAF) begins to bear fruit.
Working with 112 partner organisations in more than 90,000 settlements spread across 120 districts in Pakistan, the fund aims to help this country of 170 million meet the targets defined in the Millennium Development Goals before the 2015 deadline.
Armed with donations from the government, international agencies and corporate entities, the PPAF embarked on a nationwide programme of drought mitigation and disaster management in 2003, which quickly identified the Soan Valley as “one of the areas that needed our attention,” PPAF spokesperson Zaffar Pervez Sabri told IPS.
Determined to avoid the worst-case scenario of locals being forced to sell their livestock or migrate from the Valley, the PPAF developed a “water balance model” to manage and conserve remaining resources and address the impacts of climate change, according to Sabri.
To date, the fund has enabled the construction of 124 irrigation pipes feeding over 8,000 acres of farmland; 60 rainwater harvesting ponds, each about the size of an acre; five delay action dams that collect surface water and are ideal for the Valley’s pitted landscape; 40 check dams, which help to prevent erosion; and 12 natural resource management schemes, benefitting over 100,000 people.
Villagers themselves raised the money for the solar panels that pump the water, giving community members a sense of ownership over the project. “We collected 6,000 dollars from the village, and the fund provided the other 6,000,” Afaqi said. By eliminating the need for diesel pumps, the panels have enabled farm communities to save over 2,000 dollars annually.
Villagers also replaced traditional open channel irrigation networks with the more efficient pipe irrigation system to avoid “huge losses and water evaporation in unpaved water courses,” said Afaqi, adding, “The PVC pipes facilitate even distribution of water into the field.”
Mohammad Ismail, an engineer working with the SVDP, told IPS that pipe irrigation is especially useful on slopes where surface water would otherwise run off.
A 50-percent increase in crop yields after this transition nudged farmers into accepting other, more comprehensive changes in their lives, such as new crops and cropping patterns.
Following the SVDP’s advice, farmers gave up cultivating cauliflower, a water-intensive crop that needs to be watered 16 times in 75 days, in favour of potatoes, “which need to be irrigated only eight times,” a local farmer named Sher Khan told IPS.
Potatoes have become a major cash crop in the area, with 46 percent of irrigated land dedicated solely to their production.
In addition, farmers grow chillies in the summer, wheat in the winter and practice year-round horticulture with nectarines and peaches.
The water scheme has made farming viable once more – with just a single acre of land, according to Afaqi, the average farmer can earn a monthly profit of 1,200 dollars on potatoes, 1,500 dollars on coriander and between 1,000 and 1,500 dollars on wheat.
“With an initial investment of about 1.3 million dollars, combined with technical assistance from the PPAF and hard work by the farming communities, we have created a new economy that generates over six million dollars annually,” said Afaqi.
The programme has also spawned interest in local water conservation efforts, including bi-monthly monitoring of ground water resources at 40 different locations, he added.
Reports from quarterly inspections suggest the groundwater table is improving. Regular monitoring also serves as a kind of early-warning system, by alerting farmers about decreasing water tables ahead of cropping cycles.
For farmers like Akbar, the project has literally helped him and his large extended family – spread between 12 homes in Ucchali – achieve their modest dreams.
“All our children go to school,” he says, pride written all over his face as he conducts a brief tour of his humble brick home. The small, attached toilet at the back symbolises huge progress: “It means we no longer have to go out into the fields to relieve ourselves,” he said with a smile.