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First ladies lead fight against AIDS

First ladies lead fight against AIDS
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Nearly 30 years ago, during a visit to a group home in Washington, D.C., First Lady Barbara Bush settled on the floor to join a group of children during playtime. After a briefing and tour of the facility, she cradled a small infant, embraced a toddler, and hugged an adult as the press feverishly captured the encounters.

Typical moments for a first lady, except this experience was different. On that day in 1989, Mrs. Bush was visiting Grandma’s House, one of the first residences in the United States to care for children impacted by HIV/AIDS. Highlighted in publications across the country, the visit aimed to dispel public uncertainty and stigma around HIV/AIDS. Press aide Anna Perez stressed the first lady was strategic in her actions: “One of the reasons she's here is because she hoped [the press] would follow her. [They’re] the messengers. She wants to send a very positive and powerful message that you can help.”

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Though significant steps have reduced AIDS-related deaths and HIV transmission over the last three decades, today, on World AIDS Day, we must remember that important work remains here and around the globe. According to UNAIDS, “around 30 percent of people living with HIV still do not know their HIV status...and more than half of all people living with HIV are not virally suppressed.”

As explored across the Bush Center’s report, “A Role Without a Rulebook: The Influence and Leadership of Global First Ladies,” first ladies have strategically used their bully pulpits to promote more equitable visions of society. Leveraging the visibility of their role, they have embraced opportunities to amplify the leadership of grassroots activists and push against deep-rooted bias. And some of the most prominent examples can be seen in the enduring commitment of first ladies in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Addressing the needs of underserved populations, First Lady Lorena Castillo de Varela of Panama has been a vocal activist for the expansion of health services for vulnerable communities and the need to eliminate longstanding discrimination. After a speech by the first lady this past June, UNAIDS executive director Michel Sidibé applauded Mrs. Castillo de Varela’s advocacy: “My sister, the first lady of Panama, is a passionate defender of zero discrimination… I thank her for her compassion and commitment to leave no one behind.”

Over the last 15 years, former American first lady, Mrs. Laura Bush has regularly used her podium in support of AIDS-related programming, including the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). During her time in the East Wing, Mrs. Bush traveled to 12 of the 15 PEPFAR countries in Asia, Africa, and the Americas to spotlight firsthand the success of the U.S. efforts to combat HIV/AIDS. Continued under the Obama administration, since the program's launch in 2003, PEPFAR has saved millions of lives worldwide. Mrs. Bush's advocacy persists today through the work of the Bush Center’s affiliate organization, Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon.

In Namibia, through the #BeFree campaign and the work of the One Economy Foundation, First Lady Monica Geingos aims to inspire young people to not only protect themselves from HIV/AIDS, but to catalyze dialogue and positive decision making. As a UNAIDS Special Advocate, she has focused on destigmatizing difficult and interlinked topics like reproductive health, gender-based violence, and poverty.

From Europe to Africa and Latin America to Asia, working together with local and international partners, current and former first ladies have proven a critical force in pushing the needle forward in the fight against HIV/AIDS. For example, reflecting on Mrs. Barbara Bush’s visit to Grandma’s House and her simple gesture to challenge misconceptions, the late james Graham, who led the Whitman Walker Clinic in Washington during the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s, noted: “Here, the first lady isn’t afraid, and that's worth more than a thousand public service announcements.”

As apolitical conduits, first ladies are able to build bridges between government institutions and civil society, a tremendous influence in improving lives. But without sustained backing from elected leaders and private sector stakeholders, progress can only continue so far. Talks of scaling back funding for proven interventions like PEPFAR endangers lives and international stability. We are on the verge of an AIDS-free generation. Now more than ever increased support is needed, especially to engage at-risk populations, improve access to testing and treatment, and strengthen health systems holistically.

While champions like local activists and first ladies remain an important force in the global fight against HIV/AIDS, especially for outreach and education, ongoing engagement at every level of society remains vital. As Mrs. Laura Bush noted in 2006 during her remarks at the United Nations High Level Meeting on AIDS in New York, “No country can ignore this crisis. Fighting AIDS is an urgent calling because every life, in every land, has value and dignity.”

Natalie Gonnella Platts is deputy director of the women’s initiative at the George W. Bush Institute.