It is a red-letter day for APCOM when they are celebrating 15 years of exciting and purposeful work for the men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender communities in Asia Pacific region. I would like to congratulate Midnight and all his colleagues, office bearers and the community at large for commemorating this important landmark in their history.
For me, it is like living through history as I was involved in the process of APCOM’s creation and all the activities which preceded that important event. After joining as the Director of the Regional Support Team (RST) of UNAIDS for Asia Pacific in Bangkok in 2004, I kept empowerment of communities of key populations as my priority. It was clear even then that bulk of the new infections in Asia Pacific countries were occurring among the key populations. The report of the Commission on AIDS for Asia had given a grim warning that bulk of the new infections in Asia will occur among MSM communities. The need for a regional organization representing the MSM community was keenly felt. The Risk and Responsibility Consultation held in New Delhi in 2006 provided the springboard for launching such an organization. The UNAIDS RST provided technical support for the Risk and Responsibility consultation and more than 300 members attended the meeting at Ashoka Hotel in New Delhi.
There was great amount of openness and important members of mainstream society including members of parliament from India and other countries rubbed shoulders with the community delegates. It was unthinkable even 4 years before when a meeting of MSM community representatives from India had to be held without giving out the identity or putting a notice or banner as the hotel might refuse permission to a community representing criminalized activity! It was great progress within a period of four years.
From the Risk and Responsibility convention to formation of APCOM, it was a quick and easy path. The RST was closely involved in preparing the bylaws and providing technical support to go through legal and other formalities for registering APCOM as a regional organization in Bangkok. This has also given fillip to formation of a similar regional body for the people who inject drugs (ANPUD). The RST has kept provision of technical support to regional community organisations as one of its priority funding streams for the next few years.
I continued my interaction with APCOM as the Special Envoy of UN Secretary General for Asia Pacific when I was invited to be its Global Ambassador along with Justice Kirby. I could witness from close quarters the pioneering work that APCOM has been doing in advocating for the rights of the MSM community and ensuring provision of services from the national AIDS control programmes in the region for prevention of new infections and providing testing and treatment facilities.
The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown enormous challenges to the community members who suffered discontinuation of treatment and prevention services. They were also disproportionately affected in accessing Covid related services provided by governments such as vaccination, masks, emergency medical care and social support programmes. It has been proved beyond doubt that communities need to get organized at regional, national and local levels to ensure access to even basic minimum services guaranteed under national laws and programmes in such public health and other emergencies.
As the region takes on the challenges of meeting the tough targets set for 2025 to end the HIV epidemic by 2030, the role and relevance of APCOM in supporting communities can’t be understated. The new APCOM strategy coincides with the intense period of activity in countries for the next few years to realize these goals. Our advocacy efforts should be directed to sensitize the country leadership and development partners to the needs of community involvement in programmes focused on prevention and treatment among the key populations who account for more than 90% of new HIV infections in the region. I would appeal to funding agencies, both traditional and nontraditional, to support APCOM’s advocacy efforts by providing unrestricted funds to keep the organization going and growing. Without its existence as a fighting organization, it can’t be expected to fulfil its role as a community partner in the region.
I wish an engaging and rewarding period ahead for APCOM, its office bears and community members in the next few years.
About the contributor:
Prasada Rao is from India, he hails from a family of poets and scholars in Andhra Pradesh, India, and has a distinguished academic career with post-graduation in Nuclear Physics from Andhra University, Visakhapatnam. He was a former Permanent Secretary of Health in Government of India.
Mr Rao was the Director of India’s National AIDS Control Organization for five years before serving as India’s Permanent Secretary for Health and Family Welfare. There, he played an instrumental role in implementing a comprehensive and decentralized national AIDS control programme. He then worked in UNAIDS as the Regional Director for Asia Pacific from 2004 to 2009 and was later appointed as the Special Envoy of UN Secretary General, a position he held until July 2017. He also worked as a Special Advisor to UNAIDS on fast tracking the regional response to AIDS in Asia Pacific. He has also served as Member Secretary of two independent commissions on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific and is currently a Commissioner of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law.
During his work, Mr Rao consistently advocated for the empowerment of vulnerable communities and people living with HIV as an essential element to achieving an effective AIDS response in Asia and the Pacific.
Mr Rao launched his book ‘Celebrating Small Victories’ just in time for World AIDS Day 2020.