A few months before Tom Matthews passed on in 2022, I met him at our usual meeting venue, a pub in Birmingham city centre for a cup of coffee and an update on the plans that he had to commemorate World Aids Day (WAD), which was an important date on his calendar. 

At the meeting Tom, who openly lived with HIV, lamented to me about how at that time World Aids Day events or the condition itself, had been overtaken by COVID 19.

He mentioned that it had now become difficult to emphasise the importance of creating awareness of the fact that although COVID 19 had taken prominence, the challenges of HIV had not disappeared but were still a reality. Tom had been and was a key part of the World Aids Day vigils for many years but the global focus had temporarily shifted.

A few months after our last meeting, I received the devastating news that Tom Matthews had passed after being taken ill and admitted to hospital.

It was indeed a very sad period for me since the gentlemen whom I had first met at the former HIV charity ABPlus – where I was recruited in 2014 to coordinate project work – had spent much of his life fighting, managing and living with the condition, yet in the midst of a global viral pandemic, he was no more.

For over 3 years, I worked closely with Tom at ABPlus where we empowered, supported and encouraged people who live with HIV. Some of the projects that we organised include providing a peer mentoring service, immigration advice and support, referrals to housing, family and social care support service and hardship funds. We also coordinated the ‘Healthier Together’ programme and a food bank.

HIV campaigner Tom Matthews in California in 1990Supplied / Tom Matthews
HIV campaigner Tom Matthews in California in 1990

AB Plus formation and early years

Almost 28 years ago, Tom Matthews and Ray Farnell started a group offering support and strength for those living with HIV in the West Midlands. Starting small but growing with the passion and belief thanks to the trustees, managers, staff and volunteers, ABplus continued to grow and evolve.

However, due to changes in the commissioning of services for people living with HIV that threatened the services offered by ABPlus, as a result the charity lost its funding and closed.

Despite the closure of ABPlus, Tom who was born in 1947 and was a long-term survivor of HIV continued to work as a HIV peer mentor until his death in 2022, aged 74.

When Tom Matthews was diagnosed with the disease over four decades ago, there was no known treatment for HIV and he witnessed the deaths of many friends who succumbed to the illness.

Birmingham will mark the 35th World Aids Day with a vigil at the “Ribbons” HIV and AIDS Memorial Hippodrome Square on Friday December 1, 2023.

The event designed to ‘remember, educate and celebrate’ will feature music, speeches, candles and lanterns, and a minute’s silence. Those who wish to join the vigil can arrive at the memorial – which was unveiled on World AIDS Day last year – from 6.15pm, with the vigil itself commencing at 6.30pm.

Tom Matthews memorial banner at the World Aids Day Ribbons sculpture launch in BirminghamAdam Yosef
Tom Matthews memorial banner at the World Aids Day Ribbons sculpture launch in Birmingham

World AIDS Day 2023 theme

The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS, UNAIDS, is leading the global effort to end AIDS as a public health threat by 2023 as part of the Sustainable Development Goals. The UNAIDS World Aids Day theme for this year is “Let Communities Lead”.

UNAIDS said the world can end AIDS, with communities leading the way. Organisations of communities living with, at risk of, or affected by HIV are the frontline of progress in the HIV response. Communities connect people with person-centred public health services, build trust, innovate, monitor implementation of policies and services, and hold providers accountable.

But communities are being held back in their leadership. Funding shortages, policy and regulatory hurdles, capacity constraints, and crackdowns on civil society and on the human rights of marginalised communities, are obstructing the progress of HIV prevention and treatment services.

If these obstacles are removed, community-led organisations can add even greater impetus to the global HIV response, advancing progress towards the end of AIDS.

This World AIDS Day is more than a celebration of the achievements of communities; it is a call to action to enable and support communities in their leadership roles.

'The Ribbons' Birmingham HIV and AIDS Memorial was unveiled last year Adam Yosef
‘The Ribbons’ Birmingham HIV and AIDS Memorial was unveiled last year

World AIDS Day 2023 will highlight that to unleash the full potential of community leadership to enable the end of AIDS:

  • Communities’ leadership roles need to be made core in all HIV plans and programmes and in their formulation, budgeting, implementation, monitoring and evaluation. “Nothing about us without us.”
  • Communities’ leadership roles need to be fully and reliably funded to enable the required scale up,and be properly supported and remunerated. “Not ending AIDS is more expensive than ending it.”
  • Barriers to communities’ leadership roles need to be removed. An enabling regulatory environment is needed which facilitates communities’ role in provision of HIV services, ensures civil society space, and protects the human rights of all, including of marginalised communities, to advance the global HIV response. “Remove laws that harm, create laws that empower.”
  • Communities are leading World AIDS Day, and across the world are shaping the events and tailoring the detailed calls to their specific needs. Through photos and videos shared by groups on social media and aggregated by UNAIDS, people will be able to witness the kaleidoscope of events taking place, be inspired by the determination and hope, and hear communities’ calls for action.
  • Adaptable materials for World AIDS Day will be shared on the UNAIDS special World AIDS Day page. To highlight the narrative continuation, the campaign materials’ colour scheme and fonts are similar to, and echo, those which were used in July in The Path That Ends AIDS. The imagery is also similar to, and echoes, the design concept as used in The Path That Ends AIDS, with important shifts including that to highlight communities’ leadership role the angle has moved from looking from above people to looking up at them, and more face on. Materials are tailorable by countries and communities.
  • Because change depends not on a moment but on a movement, the message “Let Communities Lead” will not only ring out on one day. It will be at the core of activities that has been building up across November. The end of AIDS is possible, it is within our grasp” says UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima. “To follow the path that ends AIDS, the world needs to let communities lead.”
'The Ribbons' Birmingham HIV and AIDS Memorial was created by local artist Garry Jones and sculptor Luke Perry Adam Yosef
‘The Ribbons’ Birmingham HIV and AIDS Memorial was created by local artist Garry Jones and sculptor Luke Perry

Birmingham will mark the 35th World Aids Day with a vigil at the “Ribbons” HIV and AIDS Memorial Hippodrome Square on Friday December 1, 2023; with proceedings starting at 6.30pm.

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