08/06/2010 03:33 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Lessons from the International AIDS Conference - Every Woman a Leader

In late July, I was fortunate to attend the XVIII International AIDS Conference in Vienna, Austria. Although I have been working actively on HIV/AIDS issues since the mid-1980s, this was my first big international AIDS conference. I arrived eager to learn, and I was indeed amazed by the volume of information and the number of technical briefings and presentations.

But, it wasn't the science and research that impressed me most. Nor was it the huge convention complex and thousands of deeply committed researchers, advocates and service providers who attended, nor the big name speakers like Bill Clinton and Bill Gates or performers like Annie Lennox. It wasn't even the many charismatic HIV/AIDS advocates from around the world, even though many such as Anya Sarang from Russia and Vuyiseka Dubula from South Africa were truly inspirational.

The most important lesson for me was an oft repeated mantra: communities must be mobilized, and community organizations and systems must be strengthened. Whatever the subject, it seemed to always go back to the community level - and, more often than not, to women leaders. CEDPA has argued for more than 35 years that women are at the center of all communities and hold the key to mobilizing their communities.

The mantra came through during sessions on issues as varied as advocacy for parliamentary action in Kenya; fighting corruption in the health system in Ukraine; ending discrimination and stigma in India; preventing transmission of HIV from mother to child in developing communities; or in scaling up Global Fund programs all over the world. All of the issues addressed depend on the active participation of - and even leadership by - women and their communities.

The message was especially striking in the many sessions on integration of health services. In all cases, presenters made clear that community assessments must be one of the first steps in integration. The voices of community must be heard before plans for integration are drawn. Communities must be mobilized, and their capacity to design, implement and evaluate must be strengthened. Speaker after speaker stressed that health system strengthening is crucial - and that there must be equal attention to strengthening community systems.

I was especially struck by the eloquence of Elizabeth Mataka, UN Special Envoy for HIV and AIDS in Africa and Director of the Zambia National AIDS Network. She brilliantly argued for greater focus on women's leadership at the grassroots level and the need for stronger women's organizations. And, one could clearly see the evidence of her assertion in almost every session at the conference - women from around the world gave extraordinary and inspirational presentations.

CEDPA's satellite session was no exception. CEDPA brought three alumni from our Ford Foundation-funded Advancing Women's Leadership and Advocacy for AIDS Action Initiative to share their stories. Jemimah Atieno of Kenya, Kaythi Win of Myanmar and Shannon Behning of United States discussed how they applied what they learned during CEDPA workshops to their work with teachers, ex-offenders, sex workers and others. Their presentations were warmly received by an audience who was moved by their stories.

Jemimah, Kaythi and Shannon were not the only women leaders who had gone through a CEDPA capacity building program at the conference. Every day I was running into one alumna or another. I attended a workshop on strengthening the leadership of HIV Positive Women. Feeling a bit tired from jet lag as the workshop began, I suddenly sat up straight in my chair as the leader of the session announced: "As CEDPA says, every woman is a leader..." I did not know when I decided to attend the session that it was being led by CEDPA alumna, Inviolata Mmbwavi from Kenya. Once again, I was bowled over by the women in the workshop, by their bravery, compassion and commitment to serve others - and by their extraordinary support for one another, even if they had met only that morning.

I left that session energized, renewed and recommitted. I also then better understood why such international conferences are organized. We all need to hear from such inspirational women leaders. Yes indeed: "Every Woman a Leader!"