This year, we’re advocating to make sure world leaders step up the fight against AIDS, TB and malaria by supporting The Global Fund’s sixth replenishment in October. To make sure we meet our goal, we brought our UK Youth Ambassadors (YAs) to London to meet directly with their local Members of Parliament (MPs). UK YA, Abigail, recaps her day and shares what she learnt along the way.
I always wake up late and it doesn’t help that I have the cutest dog in the world jump on my bed insisting on a cuddle every morning. Today is no exception, but I still have to grab a coffee before leaving the house, unless I want to be a zombie for the whole day. I pop on a light top with a pair of flowy, comfortable blue trousers, and pack my black ONE t-shirt in my bag (not to be worn until needed).
My dog wasn’t happy to be left at home, but I’m excited to be on the train and on my way to the UK ONE Headquarters in a bustling area of London called Covent Garden. I’m feeling really nervous about meeting my local MP. I was told to research him beforehand and did. It doesn’t seem like he’d be interested in promoting our cause, and I was surprised he’d agreed to come. The stakes are high as Britain’s contributions to The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria help save thousands of lives. I’m just keeping my fingers crossed he’s on the same team in championing effective global aid to countries that need it the most.
I arrive at the ONE office located on the 8th floor of the building. The panoramic windows contribute to some stunning city views and some sort of greenhouse effect that can make it quite hot! In the main meeting room, a sea of friendly faces are waiting for me.
For some Youth Ambassadors, it was our first time meeting and others the second or third depending on attendances of previous events. That didn’t make the slightest difference in familiarities, as we know we’re all part of one big family here. I spend some time catching up with the other girls and listen in awe of all the other amazing campaigns work they dedicate their time to.
The day kicks off with a reminder of what we’re asking for today and why from ONE’s UK Policy and Advocacy Manager, Lis Wallace. We’re asking our local MPs to champion the UK’s contribution to the Global Fund. Lis and Nasim Salad, ONE’s UK Policy & Advocacy Assistant show us a role play of how a good meeting could go.
After that, we hear from Dr. Patricia Nkansah-Asamoah, a ONE and (RED) Ambassador. Her presence is powerful, and you can feel that as she turns to face us. Dr. Patricia was previously the director of the Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission (PMTCT) Clinic at Tema Hospital in Ghana. It was here where she delivered the clinic’s first HIV-negative baby from an HIV-positive mother thanks to ARV medications! She tells her story of training to be a doctor, specialising in OB/GYN and speaks of some of the difficulties that hindered their ability to stem the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in some communities.
Stigma around being HIV positive was — and still is — a pressing issue. Very few individuals would offer to be tested for HIV in her community, so Dr. Patricia began with pregnant women, a community that has engaged in unprotected sexual intercourse and therefore could potentially be exposed to HIV. She was able to treat the women who tested positive, but became worried about the lack of aftercare. There was still so much stigma around the disease, a woman could be kicked out of her house for being found HIV positive, and there was a high suicide rate amongst patients. Patricia decided she had to do something and opened an opportunistic infections clinic funded in part by the Global Fund.
We grab our lunch bags from the kitchen and get ready to walk to the Houses of Parliament. London’s thriving at this time, with all the 9-5ers taking their lunch breaks, and there’s always something to see in Westminster. For the past three years, it has become quite common to witness Brexit protests, with both Remainers and Brexiteers setting up shop outside Parliament with huge posters and banners.
We clear security and enter the Houses of Parliament. It’s an old building and always feels a little cold from the stone interior. It’s under construction at the moment, so most parts are covered in scaffolding. We’re led to a room just off the main entrance where we’ll be based for the day, so time to make ourselves at home and fuel up with sandwiches.
After lunch we sit down with Gillian Keegan, MP for Chichester and Chair of the Sustainable Development Goals All-Party Parliamentary Group for a talk and Q&A session. She tells us a little bit about her background of growing up in working-class Liverpool and gaining her degree level apprenticeship there. For years before becoming an MP, she worked for international businesses that took her from Madrid to Tokyo. This is where she began to fully realise the importance of a global economy — every country’s decisions and individual economies impacted one another’s.
As she is from the Conservative party — a right-wing political group in the UK — I grabbed the opportunity to ask her for some tips on how to approach the argument for global aid at an economic level. This was useful for me, as it’s not the first thing I think of. She suggested presenting it from this angle: global aid can work as an investment. The world is too globalised to bury our heads in the sand and pretend that issues in other countries are isolated and won’t ever affect us.
We’re left waiting for a while. Some YAs excitedly hurry off to their MP’s office for appointments. Others nervously wait to leave for their scheduled meetings, or for their MP to “drop-in”, which was what mine planned to do. I didn’t like the idea of this. It made me feel more anxious to think that I’d be speaking in front of so many other people.
My MP walks into the room. We shake hands, introduce ourselves, and sit down to begin. Unfortunately, my MP was not supportive. The conversation quickly escalated and it wasn’t a situation I wanted to be in. It was my first interaction with an MP. It was also my first time speaking in the Houses of Parliament — I’m sure anyone can imagine how nerve-racking it was — which wasn’t helping the situation. We fundamentally disagreed at all levels.
The second my MP left the room, a fellow YA, Andrea, literally scooped me into her arms for the biggest, warmest hug, which I was so grateful for. “You were amazing,” she said, “you did everything you could.” I didn’t feel like I did. The conversation must’ve lasted a good twenty minutes, but in that moment, I couldn’t remember any of it. It was all just a huge adrenaline-rushed-blur. All I could see was failure. I was very fortunate to be surrounded by the ONE family in that moment. There wasn’t a second they left me alone to feel bad about myself. They were all around me, absolutely and unconditionally loving and supportive.
ONE’s UK Campaigns Assistant, Jasmine Wakeel, took me to the nearest coffee shop for a time-out. We went over the conversation and she reassured me I’d done all I could. I remembered something on the way back to our meeting room: “Brave, Not Perfect.” It was the title of a book I read last month, which placed emphasis on the act of trying and failing, as opposed to not doing something for fear of not getting it perfect. I walked into that situation predicting that I’d be unsuccessful because I’d known my MP’s views. Regardless, I’d tried. I’d have felt far worse for not trying, so in that there is some success.
Jasmine suggested I tag on to a group meeting with Labour MP Dawn Butler so that I could have a positive experience with interacting with an MP, and it was a much more positive experience.
Luckily, I was the only YA out of the 30+ of us that were there to have an unsuccessful meeting. Many MPs said they were happy to act as champions to providing generous global aid, and others who weren’t sure took our provided information back to their office to research further.
There was still some time before the evening’s Health Heroes event, so I went along with three other girls from the YA team to watch Parliament sit from the viewing boxes. I had a strange unsettled feeling in my stomach while watching, and turned out some of the other girls did, too. It felt like there were people in this room – arguably the most important people in the most important room of the country – talking about an issue we were all familiar with, but what was being done? Some parliamentarians were complaining, while others took notes, but there were no conclusions or calls for action. I worried for the present, but I didn’t worry for the future, because here I was surrounded by YAs who were taking positive action for what they cared about.
Time for our Health Heroes event. Stephen Twigg, MP for Liverpool West Derby, welcomed us to the event. Jonathan Lord, MP for Woking, introduced his constituent Dr. Alexa Vardy, a British OB/GYN who volunteered at a hospital in Ethiopia in 2016, helping to train midwives and delivering over 1,000 babies herself. Vreni Oleram was then introduced by Dominic Raab, MP for Esher and Walton. Vreni is a trustee of of the Esher College Africa Trust, and worked with schools in Zimbabwe to help pay the school fees for children whose parents have died of HIV/AIDS-related illnesses.
We also heard from Dr. Andrew Murrison, MP for South West Wiltshire and Minister of State at the Foreign and commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development; Paul Turner, founder of ‘Focus on Africa’, a charity which supplies mosquito nets, bedding, play equipment and educational books; and Michael Deriaz, who was a part of Friends of Kipkelion, which works to improve living conditions in the Kipkelion District of Kenya and other marginalised communities in East Africa, primarily through the provision of clean water, sanitary facilities and basic healthcare and health education.
Our last speaker was Horcelie Sinda Wa Mbongo, who was crowned ‘Miss Congo UK’ in 2017 at the age of 22, whilst being HIV positive. She also campaigns around ending the stigma of HIV/AIDS, and is hoping to start her own non-profit later this year.
Jasmine asked the few of us that were available to wait around to meet with Y7 and Y20 delegates — youth versions of the G7 and G20 leadership summits respectively — that were waiting to clear Parliament security. Delegates Jennifer Okolo and Alistair Lobo came to introduce themselves, and we discussed ONE’s goals and recommendations for G7 leaders and how to engage more young people in politics, act best as youth representatives, and how to not just get our voices heard, but get actions to be made.
Finally, the end of a long day was upon us, and we all agreed that there was no better way to end the day than with Chinese food.
Jasmine leads us to a traditionally-styled restaurant called Wong Kei. I was super impressed, as I lived in Hong Kong for two years previous. I’d missed this style of dining. The kind where there’s just a load of food on the table, not enough space between the chairs, so you’re constantly reaching over and passing people things, and everyone’s digging in to dishes everywhere. It was messy, but it felt like family.
I’m always grateful beyond words for what ONE’s events give me. They teach me how to use my voice to make an impact, and how to create a chain of actions that can lead to positive change. Although I hadn’t achieved what I’d set out to do, I felt a distinct change in myself: there was so much to be learnt from the situation.
First: I could count on my voice being heard, but I couldn’t count on it being listened to. Beyond asking for what you want, you have to make actions towards what you want, because all too often it’s not given, it’s taken.
Second: There will always be people in the world to fundamentally disagree with you. It’s important to have the difficult conversations with these people, but ultimately, don’t focus on them. Address the issues they present, but their minds won’t be changed if they don’t want to be. Find the people with common goals and work together with them for maximised impact. Then, educate.
Third: I think I knew this one already but what is morally right is not always popular. That does not make you wrong.
Lastly: Drive for change, and never stop. If anything, despite failing, I feel more determined than ever to push for the future I envision for the world.
Abigail is a 2019 UK Youth Ambassador with ONE Campaign. She joined ONE as a commitment to ending global poverty and inequality (because that stuff keeps her awake at night). When she’s not campaigning for justice, Abigail can be found mentoring young people from across the globe, writing articles, acting as a Women’s Equality Officer for her local political party and – when she needs a break – walking her dog.
Join Abigail and tell your leader to take action and back the Global Fund this year.
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