HIV and AIDS activism in Africa

Published 22, Feb, 2018
Author // Guest Authors - Revolving Door

From Posterity Media, Morenike Oluwatoyin Folayan and Morolake Odetoyinbo report on two inspiring case studies in HIV activism.

HIV and AIDS activism in Africa

 A Treatment Action Campaign protest 

At the just-concluded 2018 Partners Forum that held from February 13 -15, 2018 at the Crowne Plaza, Johannesburg, South Africa, participants were taken through an Advocacy 001 class. The lecture sounded very much like what advocacy should be – planned, with timelines and targets, adequately funded with measureable targets. Sadly, the history of HIV and AIDS activism in Africa was not such structured campaigns.

HIV and AIDS activism evolved out of a desperate need to save lives. Usually, activists were challenging the draconic actions of big corporations and their own governments. A good case study for AIDS activism in Africa is the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) in South Africa.

TAC sued and forced the South African government to roll out Nevirapine to prevent mother to child HIV transmission. In 2001, TAC supported the government against Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association to preserve the Medicines Act of 1997. One year later, there was the campaign for civil disobedience to force treatment roll out for all people with HIV.

TAC’s actions were not spurred by approved proposals, or influenced by donor funding!

"... activism is not run by grants, but by people."

Communities were educated, local resources galvanized, and alliances formed with health care providers, religious leaders, trade unions and other civil society groups. TAC’s actions succeeded due to the social power they mustered; they did not mobilize because they had access to grants and foreign funded action plans.

TAC’s decision-making and action planning happened in the field; protests, matches, and pressure forming actions were taken. Journalists wrote reports, financial support followed their successful fights, the world heard about them, but more importantly, the South African government listened.

The movement for antiretroviral access in Nigeria also had a similar history.

People living with HIV took their fate in their hands. Without grants, foreign donations, the time to write proposals or skills to draw charts, the people coalesced to put pressure on the government to ensure access of antiretroviral drugs for Nigerians.

Nigerian AIDS activists taught journalists, doctors and community members the advocacy skills they learned from sister campaigns. A few quiet pioneers searched for, and modestly supported activists before the advent of big money like PEPFAR and the Global Fund. Nigerian activists seized a most critical time in history to take action – the 2005 International Conference on AIDS and STI in Africa (ICASA) which held in Abuja.

There was a movement in 2004/2005 by civil society organizations in Cambodia, Cameroon, Nigeria and Thailand, to end the conduct of a trial considered unethical by community members. The action started spontaneously – people identified a risk for their communities, they spoke up, and then mobilized themselves for action when their voices were not heard.

"... TAC’s actions succeeded due to the social power they mustered; they did not mobilize because they had access to grants and foreign funded action plans."

That movement led to the termination of the HIV prevention studies – the tenofovir trials – in Cambodia and Cameroon and a modification of the study implementation in Thailand. There were no grants to fund the movement. There are multiple other histories of HIV and AIDS activism in Africa – small, medium and big movements – that have led to landmark changes in HIV response. These activisms have pushed for recognition of the rights of individuals, populations and citizens. The victories won were the satisfactions gained by activists.

As young activists now receive classroom training on how to design, plan, implement and monitor activism with timelines, we hope the heat and heart is preserved. As they access large grants and funding for proposal writing, may we remember to teach them that activism is not run by grants, but by people.

Engaging, educating, mobilizing, and empowering people to challenge their governments, donors, allies and funders is the secret to the AIDS activism that brought change in Africa. Activism requires twenty percent money and one hundred percent angry and passionate people to disrupt unstructured governance systems on the continent.

HIV and AIDS activism for change in Africa depends on garnishing people power and not money power. It results from a collective belief in the good the population will receive because of our communitarian nature as Africans. We are organically driven, we evolve organically and our financial resources for action are marshaled on the field as our movements evolve. We often lack resources, but our movements do not die because they lack resources. Actions die in Africa when the people power is lost.

Morenike Oluwatoyin Folayan is of New HIV Vaccine and Microbicide Advocacy Society (NHVMAS)

Morolake Odetoyinbo is of Positive Action for Treatment Access (PATA).

This article by Morenike Oluwatoyin Folayan and Morolake Odetoyinbo previously appeared at Posterity Media, here.


About the Author

Guest Authors - Revolving Door

Guest Authors - Revolving Door

The Revolving Door is the place where we publish occasional articles by guest writers. If you would like to submit an article for publication, please contact editor Bob Leahy at