My name is Vaitehi, or V to most people, and I want to tell you about one of the most surreal experiences of my life.
An ordinary 20-something student somehow getting past the hoards of tourists outside, through the high black gates, past security, all the way to a seat at a large antique wooden table within one of the inner chambers of the Houses of Parliament. All to see a Government Minister who wanted to hear what I had to say?? I’m still not sure if it really happened, but if it did I owe it all to the Student Stop AIDS Campaign!
On Thursday 18th April we met with Lynne Featherstone, Liberal Democrat Minister for the Department for International Development. She had agreed to meet us as she was unable to attend the Speaker Tour. We had a lot to talk about but only 30 minutes to do it so Kate, our brilliant SSAC Co-ordinator, suggested we meet in a cafe for a pre-meeting briefing.
At 12 I was met there by Kush (a fellow SSACer from Imperial) Lynnette (one of the speakers from the tour, very much a celebrity in her own right), Kate and Ben (Director of Stop AIDS). Heather (from the All Party Parliamentary Group) and Jess (from Stop AIDS) came too, to give us the inside scoop on how to talk to an MP.
Although we had given ourselves almost 2 hours for the briefing, once we got talking about the tour, the 15 by 15 campaign, the Global Fund , SSAC, EU-India FTA, LDC TRIPS Extensions and everything else we stand for at SSAC, we soon ran out of time and quickly sketched out a rough plan of who should say what. We decided to keep it focused and went in with two key asks:
- That the UK Government increases their pledge to the Global Fund to at least double.
- That the UK Government supports the indefinite extension of TRIPS in LDCs until they are able to graduate from low income status.
At 1.45pm we rushed off to Parliament. As it was my first time in Parliament I was a mixture of excitement and nerves. Kate and Ben were very reassuring and told us to be ourselves. When we met Lynne, she was very friendly. She was really interested in what we had to say and most importantly why we as students cared so much. I was surprisingly at ease, too at ease perhaps!
Although our initial plans went out the window as soon as the conversation began, I realised that when you really care about something it speaks for itself. We told her it was obvious – millions of people are dying when they don’t have to and we have the power to stop it. If we can get 15 million people on treatment by 2015 we can save 65 million lives in the long run. Although Lynne agreed, she asked us why the money should go to AIDS and the Global Fund instead of other diseases; a valid question. We explained to her that it was important for the global community to commit to an end of AIDS and not become complacent due to the successes of getting 8 million on treatment so far. If we don’t see it through to the end, AIDS will return, a bigger and badder problem than before. We asked her for the UK pledge to be increased to double the previous figure and she said that DFID would consider an increase of up to double.
We also raised the topic of getting the UK to support the motion of granting indefinite extensions of TRIPS policies in less developed countries until they were able to graduate from their low income status. We discussed the many factors that would play into this and although we did not get a firm yes, we felt that Lynne’s attitude was very supportive and we will keep pushing the UK Government on this issue.
The meeting drew to a close and we wrapped up with thanks and a quick photo with Lynne holding a poster of the campaign slogan. For me, the most important part of the experience was seeing the difference it makes to truly care about something. We were passionate and spoke from our hearts. Lynne could see we cared and that stopping AIDS was more than just a hot topic to us. When treatment is available and the major problems are access and funding, we have to fight for the lives we have the power to save. When talking to her I realised that sometimes why and how you ask for something is almost as important as what it is you are asking for. We explained to Lynne that if we don’t get the things we’ve asked for we can’t just quit because these things are too important. We will keep talking about the end of AIDS until someone hears us, because it is achievable and within reach.
Overall the meeting was successful, and we can only hope that Lynne echoes our thoughts when she is speaking to other Ministers. We rounded off the day with tea at Parliament, and couldn’t leave without a quick peek at the debate going on commons.
From the day I have learnt that MPs are surprisingly normal people and are willing to hear you out if you have something important to say. I’d urge everyone to meet with their local MP and encourage them to support the campaign. With a loud and united voice we can definitely make people listen to us.
Thanks for reading! V x