Over 100 women activists and members of civil society gathered at the Press Club of India in Delhi on May 16 to voice their dissatisfaction with Executive Director of UNAIDS, Michel Sidibé and called for his resignation in solidarity with groups in other parts of the world that have made similar demands.
At the press conference, in conjunction with the Indian Positive Women Network (PWN+), which includes 30,000 members, the activists presented a letter outlining their demands for reforms of UNAIDS and dismissal of Sidibé that will be sent to UN Secretary-General António Guterres.
Sidibé has been under heavy pressure to step down—most recently in an Aljazeera opinion piece—since news broke of his alleged mishandling of sexual harassment allegations brought by a UNAIDS staffer against his former deputy. Multiple news reports have also revealed a management culture within the UN system that does not have effective methods in place to investigate and address reports of sexual harassment.
“I am joined here by many fellow activists who are fed up with those in top positions who abuse their power and turn a blind eye to the very people they are entrusted to protect,” said AHF India Cares Country Program Director Dr. V. Sam Prasad. “Women are among the most marginalized groups in India and are disproportionately affected by HIV and AIDS – if UNAIDS does not have their own staff members’ best interests in mind, they cannot effectively represent the world’s most disenfranchised women!”
Similar statements were given throughout the event as panelists, some of whom are also victims of sexual abuse, stepped to the podium to voice their own demands for Sidibé’s resignation or removal. Participants also advocated for the implementation of an independent oversight system of organizations like the UN and called for the termination of diplomatic immunity for all international development professionals stationed in India.
Prashanti Tiwari, a former consultant at the UNFPA says the agency’s India representative sexually assaulted her, but has not faced the consequences of his actions due to diplomatic immunity.
“More and more women today are becoming a victim of sexual assault and harassment at the hands of the UN and its many agencies who have been misusing their power and special privileges,” said Prashanti Tiwari, a feminist activist and panelist. “I have been a victim of sexual assault by the country representative of UNFPA, Diego Palacious, and have been fighting to get justice while facing aggressive retaliation from UNFPA staff. But I have learned there are no means or mechanisms to hold such perpetrators accountable or prosecute them.”
The panel consisted of Ms. Prasanti Tiwari; Sister Daise Terese, Mother Superior at the Jyothis Charitable Trust; Dr. Divya Mithel, AHF JCC Clinic Medical Officer; Prince Manavendra Singh Gohil, LGBT activist and head of the Lakshya Trust; Ms. Kausalya Periasamy, President PWN+; Luke Samson, President SHARAN Indi; and representatives from various civil society organizations.
Participants made it clear that UNAIDS’ and its director’s behavior have set a bad precedent, and anything short of a leadership change with top-down reform will only result in further transgressions.