The Anwernekenhe journey

The Anwernekenhe journey

HIV Australia | Vol. 11 No.3 | October 2013

The Anwernekenhe National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander HIV/AIDS Alliance (ANA) began its journey on 31 October, 1994 at Hamilton Downs just outside of Alice Springs.

Beginning as a conference known as Anwernekenhe – First National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Gay Men and Transgender Sexual Health Conference, Anwernekenhe bought together delegates to discuss the impact HIV/AIDS was having in the community and to find ways to address the affects of HIV as a major health care threat.

The conference saw the establishment of a National Working Party, which over the years has had different names but is now known as the ANA.

At the completion of the Anwernekenhe conference, Arrernte Elders and custodians of the land where the conference was held gave permission to use the word Anwernekenhe as the conference name. Anwernekenhe translates as ‘us mob meeting here in this place’.

The conference set the foundations for an ongoing program which, at its core, was to be community driven, and so it continues to this day.

The working party formed at Anwernekenhe lobbied the Commonwealth Government, successfully gaining funding to establish a national project that would be auspiced by the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO).

The national project operated from 1996 until 2010, coordinating a further three Anwernekenhe conferences held four years apart. In 2008, the ANA became incorporated and decided to take on a broader brief: a whole of community approach.

While we would still maintain a major focus on gay men and sistergirls, we recognised that the impact of HIV and AIDS was affecting the whole of our community. If we were to truly combat HIV in our communities, we needed community support.

Positions on our Board were created for women and Elders to reflect this. Incorporation and a broader brief did not come easy.

It meant that the ANA was moving into a new direction and had to again prove itself as a stakeholder in the HIV response to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. At the end of 2010, funding dried up and we faced the real possibility of being forced to wind up the organisation.

The ANA Board in partnership with AFAO management initiated discussions with the AIDS Trust of Australia (ATA), successfully securing a grant which would be used to develop and implement the Anwernekenhe 5 conference – held in August 2011.

A turning point

The Anwernekenhe conference and outcomes has proved to be a very successful model. The key elements of the process have seen four yearly national gatherings of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people working in or affected by HIV.

Conference participants form a consensus on agreed priorities and emerging issues, which then inform the work plan of the ANA.

This provides a coherent, collaborative and consistent process for developing agreed strategic directions that result in a program that remains culturally specific and therefore more effective.

While this process is effective, the ANA fully recognises that the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people affected by HIV are wide ranging, complex and in some cases unique.

We also recognise that they are interconnected with many other health issues and that this model does not address the sexual health and HIV needs of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Anwernekenhe 5 proved to be a successful turning point for the ANA, with conference participants developing and agreeing to a strategic plan to take the organisation forward from 2011 until 2015.

All participants at the conference had the opportunity to contribute to this plan, which was then refined by the ANA Board.

Shortly after the release of the ANA strategic plan, the ATA agreed to a further grant which would see the ANA able to operate through until June 2013.

A strong future

In April 2013, the ANA received the very exciting news that we would receive a three-year contract through the Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing.

With the contract commencing in the 2012/13 financial year and running until June 2015, this allows the ANA to consolidate implementation of our strategic plan.

We are fully aware that there is still much more work to be done to grow into a viable organisation to meet the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people affected by HIV. Over the next two years the ANA will focus its work on three priority areas:

  • HIV partnership building, collaboration and community involvement
  • HIV education, prevention, treatment, care and support
  • organisational governance, strength and communication.

Some of this work will include preparations for Anwernekenhe 6 in 2015 – which will be the 21st anniversary of Anwernekenhe. In the meantime, Australia will host the 20th International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2014), in Melbourne, in July 2014.

The ANA is on the Australian Aboriginal Organising Committee (AAOC) for the Conference, ensuring community input into the Conference program, and oversight of the Sydney Indigenous Pre-conference.

The Sydney Indigenous Pre-conference is a collaborative partnership between the AAOC and the International Indigenous Working Group on HIV and AIDS (IIWGHA).

The conference is expected to attract up to 300 national and international participants who will gather in Sydney in July 2014, prior to the International AIDS Conference.


Michael Costello is Executive Officer of Anwernekenhe National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander HIV/AIDS Alliance (ANA).

He has over 18 years’ experience working with the community response to HIV – both nationally and internationally – and has been involved with the ANA movement since 1998.

Michael is Central Arrernte of the Arrernte Nation. He is a guest editor of this edition of HIV Australia.