Kate Hilpern reports on an eye-catching campaign to fight Aids and HIV

They say actions speak louder than words and there's certainly no action quite like 8,000 pairs of eyes staring at you when you make a promise. ActionAid decided to start collecting this number of eyes for its photo petition back in 2003 to show world leaders that the steps they take to deliver on their promise around HIV treatment are being closely watched. The figure of 8,000 – which has just been reached – was in solidarity with the number of people who die of Aids each day.

Just in case any world leader didn't quite "get it", ActionAid encouraged each person that lent their eyes to the photo petition to add a personal message.

"You promised HIV treatment for all by 2010 – and I'm going to be watching you to make sure you keep that promise," says Mel C, one of many celebrities that has given their support.

"For every minute you spend looking at these pictures, five people will have died. There is no time to waste," says Alan Rickman's message.

"It all began in 2003, when there was a view that there is no point in trying to supply HIV medicines in developing countries because the focus should be on prevention," says Fionnula Murphy, HIV campaigns officer at ActionAid. "They were saying that delivering treatments in these countries would be futile because people are illiterate and therefore won't take the medication properly and that there aren't enough hospitals to administer medication anyway. We challenged this because medication can give life to people who would otherwise not have life. We feel this is a human right."

In fact, while G8 leaders at Gleneagles were deciding whether to back that commitment – which they ultimately did – ActionAid campaigners armed with digital cameras and mini-printers began gathering pictures of people's eyeballs, and asked them to decorate the newly printed picture with their own campaign message.

The following month, at Manchester's Gay Pride Parade, over 200 campaigners added their eyes. "We wanted to make sure that we showed the ordinary people behind the campaign – that's where the idea of eyes came from and the Stop Aids Consortium worked with us on it," says Murphy, who adds that famous people ranging from the likes of Tony Benn to Joss Stone have since given their support.

September 2005 brought the first test of G8's commitment to their treatment for the target, with the Global Fund Replenishment Conference.

"As rich country leaders left the London meeting in shame, having pledged meagre sums to fight Aids, TB and Malaria, we used eye photos to spell out the number of lives claimed by these killer diseases during the two day event," says Murphy.

MPs have been particularly keen to lend their eyes, as have students. Indeed, from St Andrews to Sussex, student campaigners have been snapping their eyeballs. Massive gatherings at the Medsin and People & Planet Conferences, as well as the Unite to Fight Aids Speaker Tour, helped bump up the numbers, and the annual meeting of the International Community of Women Living with HIV presented a fantastic opportunity to collect eyeballs from women on the front line of the Aids epidemic. By World Aids Day 2005, 1,600 photos had been collected.

ActionAid had no intention of missing this day to create something visible and mobile that would grab media and politicians' attention and the charity came up with the idea of a big, red London bus. "A friendly campaigner who happened to live in an old Routemaster up north volunteered his services, and before we knew it we were on the road to 2010," says Murphy.

During that week of World Aids Day 2005, the bus – which had the eyes displayed both outside and in – provided a meeting venue for campaigners and decision makers including Tony Blair, Hilary Benn, Development Ministers and Ambassadors from all EU countries, South African politicians and over 80 MPs. "When Blair got on the bus and saw this crazy looking gallery of eyes, he was like, 'We really are being watched,' and we said, 'Yes, you are.' That gave us a chance to lobby him about what he was going to do on the issue."

It was in 2006 that the first Global Week of Action on Aids occurred, a time to remind politicians that people all over the world – not just the UK – were keeping an eye on the 2010 target. "So on 22 May, we unveiled a world map made up of eyeballs to Hilary Benn and other MPs," says Murphy. "In March this year, we used this map to target the Secretary of State again, cornering him in advance of the G8 Development Minister's Meeting to ask him some pretty tricky questions."

By June this year, when Blair was preparing for his final G8 summit as UK Prime Minister, ActionAid couldn't resist the opportunity to eyeball him again. Giant placards, featuring a collage of Blair's face made out of tiny eyes from the petition lined the quays of the Thames during the 2 June mobilisation, while placards featuring Angela Merkel and other G8 leaders were brandished at the G8 Summit in Germany.

So has the petition, which has just accepted its 8,000th pair of eyes, actually worked?

"We're not at 2010 yet," says Murphy. "But we do know that when the petition was set up, a really small percentage of people with HIV could get medication – certainly less than 5 per cent. Now that figure has risen to more like 25 per cent. I have no doubt that our campaign has helped achieve this and what's even greater about the petition is that it charts the progress of the original target."

There is still a long way to go, adds Murphy.

"Another way of looking at where we're at is that three out of four people who need Aids treatment are still unable to access it and only 9 per cent of positive, pregnant women receive drugs to prevent mother to child transmission. As a result, Aids is continuing to devastate lives, communities and economies."

As such, the petition is just one example of the campaigning work around HIV that ActionAid is involved in. Among the most powerful is a campaign the charity is about to launch in the run up to World Aids Day 2007.

"This campaign argues that HIV and Aids cannot be overcome without world leaders tackling the persistent violation of women's rights," explains Murphy. "For example, because girls' access to education is limited, it prevents them from learning about HIV and how to protect themselves, as well a restricting their future employment opportunities, which in turn can mean they're more at risk of going into sex work or winding up dependent on a man who is perhaps violent or who won't use condoms."