The International AIDS Conference
has a history of welcoming world leaders, including presidents and kings,
greeting delegates and saluting "them" for their efforts to eradicate
HIV. Year after year, one elected official has bypassed the flashing
lights and cameras of the opening ceremony and joined the ranks as one
of "us," contributing energetically as a presenter, moderator, spokesperson
and HIV visionary all week.
Once again, Representative
Barbara Lee (D-CA) is the sole member of the U.S. Congress to attend
the International AIDS Conference. On Tuesday, I caught up with Rep. Lee to learn how her involvement builds progressive
momentum globally and in the U.S.
"I saw that there was a void
when I when to Congress so I started participating to get a good handle
on what strategies and what policies the United States should mount."
Hers is a simple operating
plan. Rep. Lee connects the House of Representatives to major themes
of the epidemic, building bi-partisan support for critical issues such
as comprehensive sex education, family planning and the U.S. travel
ban, whose repeal she successfully engineered in the new PEPFAR bill.
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"When I was in Toronto, it
dawned on me that we should have one of these great conferences in my
district in Oakland. Then someone reminded me, ‘you can’t do that
Barbara, there’s a travel ban.’ So I went back to Congress, wrote
and introduced a resolution that would lift the travel ban. I’m proud
to say that in the PEPFAR bill that President Bush signed into law,
that travel ban was repealed. Now we need to implement the regulations,
which we’re working on."
Representative Lee understands
the complicated obstacles that thwart effective HIV prevention, though
not all of her recommendations are embraced. Support for family planning
is absent from the new PEPFAR-a painful irony in the city that gave
the global gag rule the name "Mexico City Policy."
"That is something that was
left out of PEPFAR and we couldn’t negotiate it with the other side.
Hopefully when there is another President we can go back to the drawing
board and fix that. It’s absolutely essential that we have coordination
between HIV/AIDS initiatives and family planning. I want to repeal the
Global Gag Rule that does not allow organizations to receive federal
funding to provide full reproductive health counseling, including abortion
counseling. It is a shame and disgrace and does a disservice to women,
harming millions of women throughout the world."
Domestically, Rep. Lee is aghast
at infection rates in the African-American community including those
in her Oakland, California district. She laments Congress’s failure
to adequately fund the Minority AIDS Initiative and was not surprised
at the CDC’s revised surveillance figures or the recent Black AIDS
Institute report, "Left Behind."
"There’s been a severe
undercount. The Black AIDS Institute knew this, I knew this, members
of Congress knew this. BAI is calling for a domestic PEPFAR and I fully
agree with them. They want 1.3 billion to begin. I think we need billions
and billions and billions more."
Of course, to be effective,
that level of funding will require another sweeping policy change,
an end to the abstinence-only-until-marriage programs favored by the
administration. Rep. Lee has led the charge against abstinence-only-until-marriage
programs and wrote a bill to allow states to devise evidence-based HIV
and AIDS education.
"The Responsible Education
about Life [REAL] Act, be for REAL, that’s my bill, has more than
100 co-sponsors. That bill would in essence allow states to use federal
funding to teach comprehensive sex education in public schools, to teach
young people how to prevent the transmission of HIV and AIDS and also
how to prevent unwanted pregnancies. It’s got to happen."
"Hopefully with a new president
we’ll be able to push that policy forward."
To hear the entire interview
with Rep. Barbara Lee, visit the San Francisco AIDS Foundation’s podcast