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AIDS activists rally across from the White House in Washington on July 24, 2012. (KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)
AIDS activists rally across from the White House in Washington on July 24, 2012. (KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)

Beal and Coolen

GRAN goes to Washington Add to ...

The 19th International AIDS Conference under way in Washington is remarkable on several counts: Its goal of “Turning the Tide of AIDS Together” is actually achievable, it’s the first to be held on U.S. soil in 22 years, and Canada’s grandmothers will be right in the thick of the action in the conference’s Global Village, which brings together community groups from around the world. Grandmothers have been powerful advocates for change in Canada for several years, and now, under the banner of the Grandmothers Advocacy Network (GRAN), we have come of age, taking our place alongside international scientists, politicians and other activists at AIDS 2012 in a new twist on an old theme: GRAN Goes to Washington.

A crucial goal of the conference is to put AIDS back on the global agenda. With almost 35 million people living with HIV worldwide, and large numbers lacking access to medicines, it’s a matter of life and death. One issue sure to receive major attention is recent research showing the astonishing success of using antiretroviral drugs to cut the risks of HIV transmission from one sexual partner to another by 96 per cent – what is known as “treatment as prevention,” adding yet another reason for us to advocate for truly global access to medicines.

So what do Canadian grandmothers have to share with the international community about advocacy? Caring for our own grandchildren has sharpened our awareness of the enormously difficult challenge Africa’s grandmothers confront every day. Our sense of solidarity with African grandmothers fills us with determination to change Canada’s Access to Medicines Regime.

Originally passed in 2004, CAMR was intended to supply life-saving generic drugs to people in developing countries – people who would otherwise suffer and die because of the high cost of medicines. Since the law passed, however, it has been used exactly once because red tape makes it unworkable for generic manufacturers and developing countries alike. A bill to amend CAMR passed in the House of Commons in March, 2011, but died in the Senate with the election call last year. But now the key reforms have been reintroduced and are back before Parliament in Bill C-398.

Richard Elliott, the executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, credits grandmothers as being hugely important in swaying politicians to improve CAMR as well as getting the bill through the House of Commons. Now he welcomes grandmothers as a key grassroots force strongly supporting the revived effort.

We know people are dying because they can’t afford treatment. We know we can supply medicines for well under a dollar a day. And again, we will work tirelessly to encourage Parliament to amend CAMR so that affordable generic medicines can flow easily from Canada to the developing world. How can we do otherwise?

In Washington, Gloria Steinem’s famous saying, “one day, an army of grey-haired old women may quietly take over the world” will anchor our one-hour presentation in the Global Village. Declaring, “That day is now,” we’ll outline GRAN’s strategy for successful advocacy, based on a grassroots network of grandmother groups ready to spring into action with petitions, rousing speeches, media appeals and constituency visits to MPs in riding after riding across the country.

The millions of people living with HIV-AIDS can’t depend on donations from major pharmaceutical companies for life-saving treatment. Countries must have reliable access to generic medicines in a competitive marketplace to make medicine affordable. They need long-term, sustainable policies, not occasional charity.

And that is a key message that Canada’s grandmothers will take to Washington. Grandmothers across the country are committed to persuading politicians to pass the new legislation in both the Senate and the House of Commons, giving generic drug manufacturers more flexibility to supply medicine to developing countries under one licence, rather than being saddled with the current complex and unworkable system. African grandmothers, impressive advocates themselves on behalf of their orphaned grandchildren, have formidable allies in Canada’s Grandmothers Advocacy Network. Take notice, Washington, we are no rocking-chair grans!

Andrea Beal from King City, Ont., is a grandmother of six and has been working nationally on advocacy issues on behalf of African grandmothers for the past five years. Marilyn Coolen from Boutiliers Point, N.S., is a grandmother of twins and a step-grandmother of five who works nationally on long-term changes to policy affecting African grandmothers.

As co-chairs of the Grandmothers Advocacy Network, they will present in the Global Village of AIDS 2012 in Washington on Friday.

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