I was diagnosed with HIV more than 20 years ago and almost immediately became involved in AIDS activism – firstly in the UK, where I helped set up the first positive women’s organization – and then on an international basis – through work with the international PLHIV conferences, the Global Network of PLHIV and the International Community of Women living with HIV.
Although I’d had experience of working with the UN system since the days of WHO’s Global Programme on AIDS, the first time I got a real sense of working within the UN system was when I joined the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria in early 2001. Although the Global Fund is not a UN agency, it has an administrative agreement with WHO and its staff have WHO contracts.
While I was doing the paperwork, I was advised by the WHO Human Resources department not to disclose my HIV status as this would complicate the processing of my short-term contract. As someone who had been ‘out’ about my status for many years I found this request outrageous and ironic, given it was coming from the world’s leading agency on health.
Once I arrived at the Global Fund, I learned that although I had to pay into the health insurance scheme I was not covered for HIV-related health problems. So, while the Global Fund was working to ensure health services for PLHIV in other parts of the world, its own short-term staff and those of the WHO could not access health care for HIV or other pre-existing conditions. I remained in Geneva for almost two and a half years with no HIV or Hepatitis C-related health coverage. Luckily Geneva was close enough to the UK for me to return there on a regular basis to see my doctor.
Thanks to the advocacy of concerned staff, people on short-term contracts with WHO can now access health care for HIV and other pre-existing conditions. However, there are many other areas the UN and its associated agencies must address to create a better and safer workplace for those of us living with HIV. I joined UNAIDS in February 2005 and shortly after those of us openly living with HIV at the UNAIDS headquarters in Geneva came together to start UN+ in response to the particular problems encountered by one of our colleagues, but recognizing that we all had major concerns related to living with HIV in the UN system.
I believe that UN+ can truly be a force for change within the UN, not only in the policy arena, but also by playing a key role in offering support and information to staff members living with HIV and by reducing the stigma and discrimination they experience. In order to be most effective, UN+ will need to work strategically with other partners within and outside the UN system, from Heads of Agencies to other positive networks.
When I arrived to work at UNAIDS in Geneva in 2003 I was surprised that there were so few staff openly living with HIV and there seemed to be very little information available for HIV positive employees. At the time I suspected the situation would be the same or even worse in different duty stations. The few staff open about their status found each other and through our discussions UN Plus started. We held fruitful meetings with UNAIDS Executive Director Peter Piot and later with Kofi Annan who was the UN Secretary General at the time.
I am proud to have been a founder member of UN Plus. Our organizing and visibility enabled us to provide first hand perspectives on HIV within our respective organizations. Whether we work within the AIDS field or not I’d like to think our personal realities help us bring a sense of urgency and empathy to our work in international health and development as we strive to improve the lives of others.
Why I was involved: The only thing that reminded me that I was HIV-positive was arriving at work and knowing that I was being discriminated against in regards to health insurance (2000). Health insurance is the central issue,,, though having a voice within the system is also crucial. Lots of time I would sit in meetings and at some point say…and what about PLHIV”… their issues are often forgotten by people who are HIV-negative or of unknown status.
Another issue to highlight is that there are many people in the UN who are HIV-positive but are too afraid to be open about their status. UN+ creates a forum for their involvement.
I am convinced that there are as many ways to cope with HIV as there are people living with it. Depending on the region, social background, age, gender, cultural environment, it takes on so many different faces, and very often grimaces! Born and raised in a wealthy industrialized country I consider myself to be one of the more fortunate HIV positive guys in the world. From the beginning, I had access to the best possible medical care and treatment and I did not feel discriminated in any way. My wish to learn more about how HIV-positive people are living with the virus in other parts of the world brought me to UNAIDS. When I joined UNAIDS, I was very open about my status, and I was really surprised to see that not many people are. By learning more about the impact of HIV in many different settings and situations, I began to understand why they keep it secret. I have discovered that all sorts of discrimination happens, everywhere and all the time, even within the United Nations, and this is why I think that UN+ is an extremely valuable group that can really make a difference for its members, and hopefully also for others.
Manuel da Quinta
“UN Plus is positive leadership in action”