Why we young women had to resort to putting up the Visible Panty Line

October 30, 2014

This was originally published on the What’sUpHIV blog that provided live coverage during HIV R4P 2014.

Wednesday was the day we were finally going to be seen and heard: the day that young women from Burundi, South Africa Uganda and Kenya were going to make it all about us. While everyone was in plenary session, we young women plotted to get the most attention when researchers, policy makers and the conference elite walked out of the plenary. Well, we did succeed in catching their collective eye with our visible panty line (VPL)—a clothes line with colourful, sexy lingerie clipped to it. This attracted scores of conference-goers to our corner. But while everyone was curious, not everyone wanted to participate in the activity—which involved writing messages and clipping them to the line. Instead, I watched as the usual suspects wrote messages about issues affecting young women and a few wrote about strategy ideas to improve the young women’s agenda. I was secretly waiting for a researcher to prove me wrong.  None did.

This was disappointing because we young women have a lot to say to researchers about the prevention options we want – if only they would listen. For instance, we know that PrEP works. We know young women between the ages 19-24 are most affected in many parts of the world. We also know this group hasn’t been a priority for demonstration projects of PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis).

I attended two oral poster presentations on PrEP and microbicides adherence in women. Speaker after speaker explained that they had gathered evidence about how women lie in about product use (aka adherence) trials. I wanted to say to them: “We do not lie as a choice but as a negotiation. Women lie to their partners, to their family, to their community and in trials because we prioritize other people and not themselves. Some of reasons given to explain that “the lies” were – “I did not use the gel because my partner does not like the slipperiness”, “My partner felt it and I had to remove it.” Women who didn’t use a PrEP or microbicide containing an ARV had their samples measured for detectable drug in the blood. They were told their pharmacokinetic levels that indicated no product use. “I beg you to forgive my PK levels,” was one of the responses I observed. Why do we do it?

After all these lies, I rush back to the Advocates Corner and our Visible Panty Line.

Phew, these young women, like our mothers, have submissively found their space on the floor. And then the old women came and the heterosexual man came: again they wanted to help young women. This is what they should do or shouldn’t do. But why don’t they want to listen to the women themselves?

I am livid: they are doing it again! They are gagging young women.