A fresh-faced model stares down the lens of a camera, a red ribbon painted on her cheek. “No war on the face of the Earth is more destructive than the AIDS pandemic,” she says. “Let’s stop the spread.”
These might seem like solemn words for a model promoting her upcoming catwalk appearance in Melbourne, but this is no ordinary fashion show. It’s Positive Runway: a travelling gala designed to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS through a night of edgy clothing, provocative speakers, film and music.
Positive Runway was launched in 2011 by Justina Mutale: humanitarian, philanthropist and 2012’s African Woman of the Year. Growing up in Zambia, she witnessed the devastating effects of HIV/AIDS first-hand, and realised that sometimes, it takes a creative idea to attack a complex problem. “I used to do a pageant called Miss Zambia UK,” she explains. “The beneficiaries were orphans: children of Zambian women who had died from HIV/AIDS.”
While this project did a lot for victims of the virus, Mutale felt that she needed to turn her attention to a deeper issue. “In 2011, we realised that in the 30 years since the disease was discovered, we had not managed to stop the spread.” Her path was clear: she needed to educate young people and empower them to use protection, get tested and escape the stigma of the virus – and not just in Africa.
“In western countries, people are not talking about HIV/AIDS as much as they did, because everybody now has just got used to living with it. It also remains a disease of shame… a disease of the poor. Now, new infections are on the rise.” In 2012, it was reported that in Australia, the rate of HIV infections had risen by 10% in 12 months: the highest increase in two decades.
Positive Runway is making its way to Melbourne as part of the 20th International AIDS Conference. But while the 14,000 delegates from nearly 200 countries will sit in lecture rooms, visitors who show up to Positive Runway will find themselves in a glamorous catwalk show.
In the interval, visitors will hear from people living with, or working to eradicate the disease. Mutale hopes that people in the audience will also feel empowered to share their experiences. “We had one guy in Atlanta who had been living with HIV for 25 years,” she says. “Not even his mother and father knew. But through our show he got up and spoke about it.”
Whether you’ve got your own story to tell or not, there’s no person in Melbourne who wouldn’t benefit from being reminded of the threat posed by HIV/AIDS – but also, of the hope that lies ahead. At the very least, it’s important to remember that prevention is simple. In the words of Positive Runway supporter Aretha Franklin: “Use protection whatever you’re doing – whomever you’re doing.”
RSVP through firstname.lastname@example.org