By Bose Olotu
The 26th annual United States Conference on HIV/AIDS (USCHA 2022) convened in San Juan, Puerto Rico, October 8 – 11, 2022 – in person for the first time in three years. Members of The Well Project's community wrote recap articles sharing their unique perspectives on conference sessions and events of interest to our communities. Read on and check out more of The Well Project's coverage of this momentous gathering.
The conference was epic for me. Firstly, this was my first time attending the USCHA. It was a huge learning event for me, and I attended some very interesting sessions and plenaries.
Secondly, I had a great time with The Well Project CAB (community advisory board) members and staff team, which came with a lot of fun moments and laughter. Like the saying goes, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy!
During the session "Community Engagement's Role in Ending the HIV Epidemic in the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program," Ryan White program administrators made a presentation highlighting their project's efforts and key activities toward ending the HIV epidemic.
During the discussion at the end of the presentation, a question was asked about how to engage communities and stakeholders around ending the HIV epidemic. I was able to contribute in response to the question, sharing about how I was able to carry out effective community entry and engagement in my work with The Well Project in Nigeria. This was a huge success as the audience showed a great appreciation of my work from the comments and feedback I shared.
Here are a few key lessons I learned and discussions I was part of at USCHA:
- Advocacy is about the commitment and passion of the individual involved, not how much they are paid
- Meaningful engagement of persons living with HIV (MIPA) at every level of project development
- Stigma is still a very big issue globally
- Encouraging the community and key stakeholders is very important in the success of any project
- Need to focus more on underserved communities (such as women and girls) using social media
- "HIV-positive" could be HIV possible because I should not be defined by HIV-positive status
- Language matters – some HIV-related words or terms need to be updated
- In replacement of "long-term survival" we can also use lifelong survival of HIV regarding people who were born with HIV or acquired it very young
- I must learn to love myself more
Another important topic of discussion for me was sexual and reproductive health/rights/justice/pleasure as it relates to women living with HIV. My awesome sisters from The Well Project, Kim, Porchia, Aryah, and Ci Ci, presented a very interesting session called "Let's Talk About...Sexual and Reproductive Health for Women with HIV." It was a hot and very spicy topic.
Strange or funny as this might sound, a day before this session, I was discussing this same topic and issue with my dearest sister Olivia (also from The Well Project). I spoke extensively and was very open and vulnerable, not even knowing that I would walk into a room full of different people – and a topic most people don't like discussing or even have the courage to sit with another person to discuss.
The discussion touched me physically and emotionally. Sex and pleasure!?! This is one thing I have been so ashamed of talking to anyone about for many years now. Kim and the rest of the team on the panel shared intriguing experiences regarding how sex could be very pleasuring for us as women of African descent, including women of trans experience. As a Black African woman, I don't have any privilege to negotiate sex – not even with my husband. We are presumed to be a sex object to our partner.
I have always had these thoughts in my head, thinking all this is a result of being raped at an early age and constantly getting sexually abused and molested as a child by men around me.
A friend once asked me if I have ever had orgasm or sexual climax. I do fake having it, or enjoying making love. While he was alive, I finally gathered the courage to ask my last surviving parent, my late dad, if I was circumcised – because back then, female genital mutilation (FGM) was commonly done.
And he told me a shocking yes!
For the first time I am ready to learn how to find my pleasure spot as a woman. It is my fundamental sexual right. For the first time in my life I was able to buy myself a sex toy: The Rose! I am so looking forward to buying more. I need to discover myself, by myself.
I was hoping to discuss this with my sister Maria; this was on my number one list to talk to someone about. Olivia, my sister, thank you for giving me the opportunity to share with you about this issue. After the USCHA conference I even had a brief discussion about this with someone else.
My take-home from this session: I must learn to love and explore my sexuality and my body as a woman.
My quote from USCHA: I need to focus on me! I am a Black woman in all of my diversity.