Empowered while criminalised: successful lobby at UN by key populations

Empowered while criminalised: successful lobby at UN by key populations

What is it like to live in a country where you are constantly confronted with stigma, discrimination and violence because you are a sex worker or drug user? Where you are criminalised just because you are gay or are living with HIV? What role can you play as an activist to confront such injustice in countries where the space for activism or civil society engagement is not a given?  

In July, the High-Level Political Forum (HLFP) at the United Nations in New York UN Member States gathered to discuss the progress of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This is a key moment on the Aidsfonds lobby and advocacy agenda and gives us the opportunity to highlight the long road ahead in terms of achieving the SDGs for key populations. However, the HLPF is especially important for our country partners to engage with their governments and show the realities key populations face and how these hamper progress on realising the SDGs.

Civil society speaks up

Aidsfonds partner Pamela Chakuvinga, a sex worker and activist in South Africa, spoke at the HLPF on the awareness raising programmes her organisation Sisonke does to end police violence against sex workers in South Africa. She emphasised the importance of strong partnerships between the legal system, civil society organisations, UN agencies, donors and national and local authorities in countries where sex workers and other vulnerable groups are still facing significant barriers in terms of equal access to health care and other critical services.

Pamela joined other speakers at a panel discussion organised by Aidsfonds together with UNAIDS, UNDP, Frontline AIDS and Mpact Global Action for Gay Men’s Health and Rights. The panel discussed the damaging consequences of criminalising laws for the population of countries and strategies for combatting stigma, discrimination, violence and inequality.  

Advocacy pays off

In addition to Pamela Chakuvinga, Baby Rivona, an Indonesian activist, spoke about what it is like being a marginalised woman living with HIV and a former drug user. She has to fight for access to health care without stigma and discrimination and in New York criticized the Indonesian Government for their stance towards key populations:


We will not get anywhere, we will go nowhere, without removal of criminalizing laws. We will never achieve the end of AIDS by 2030 if we keep criminalizing key populations.


"We need to move beyond looking at AIDS only from just a health perspective. I am talking here about the right to health, and human rights. I don’t want to come back to this UN building in 10- or 20-years time, as an old lady having to say these same things. Let’s put an end to criminalization now!”

As a result of her intervention, she got invited by Indonesian government representative attending the discussion to provide input regarding the challenges faced by key populations in Indonesia. Her input would then be included in official statements and reports of the Indonesian government during upcoming UN meetings discussing SDG goals.

“The positive impact of Baby’s advocacy at the HLPF is why we need to keep pushing for inclusion of civil society in global meetings,” says Marielle Hart, Head of Policy US of Aidsfonds in Washington.


We are noticing a rise of populism and conservatism across the globe that has adverse effects on the space of civil society to challenge political and social issues.


"Unfortunately, also, at fora like the HLPF at the UN, we see that civil society gets less space to join in debates and let their voices be heard. This is why we organise panel discussions like the one at the HLPF. They give people like Baby and Pamela the opportunity to speak up, engage with their governments at a global level, donors and UN agencies and reach a bigger audience. Without their perspectives, the issues meetings like the HLPF address are not set in reality and won’t make a difference for key populations and other marginalised groups.”

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