Johannesburg – 26 November 2003
Excellencies, Members of the Press and Media; Colleagues, Friends:
We are here to sound a new and more urgent alarm over what is arguably the most neglected crisis spawned by HIV/AIDS pandemic – the plight of millions of profoundly vulnerable children who have lost one or both parents to the disease – and the long-term threat that the situation poses to peace and security, not only in sub-Saharan Africa, but worldwide.
As the Report we are issuing today makes clear, the severity of the crisis is worsening, with dire implications for the long-term economic and social stability of sub-Saharan Africa.
The numbers of orphaned children we are talking about are already vast – and growing rapidly, so much so that they are beginning to overwhelm the coping capacities of families and communities. At the same time, the Report found that HIV/AIDS is wreaking even more devastation on orphans and surviving family members than had been suspected.
One factor in the erosion of traditional family support structures, UNICEF’s Report suggests, is that children orphaned by AIDS tend to suffer more physical and emotional damage than had originally been thought – a finding reflected in some cases by elevated non-AIDS child mortality rates and stunting. This in turn increases the burden on caregivers, many of whom tend to be grandparents and other elderly members of the extended family.
UNICEF regards enrolling children in school and keeping them there as the most essential ingredient in helping orphans cope with their loss. Yet the Report found that the critical factor in whether an orphan enrols in school is not income, but the child’s relationship with the decision-making adult in the family – who may be an elderly person whose authority the child rejects. This is an especially troubling finding, since we already know that in Africa, the emotional strain of losing a parent or both parents – and being stigmatised as a result – can delay school enrolment, affect attendance, and ultimately lead orphans to drop out.
The struggle to contain HIV/AIDS has all the hallmarks of a full-scale war. But in one respect it is worse, because a war can be ended with far more ease than a pandemic. In fact what we are facing is a development catastrophe that requires an emergency response – and there is no better gauge of its scale and cruelty than the orphan crisis – and the shameful inadequacy of the world’s response to date. Worldwide, there are 14 million children orphaned by AIDS, most between 10 and 15 years old. Of these, some 11 million are in sub-Saharan Africa. Groups of such children are an increasingly common sight in sub-Saharan African communities – children growing up without adults to supply love, nurturing, care and protection, who are hungry, malnourished, denied their right to basic education – and ultimately stigmatised and excluded by societies whose attitudes and policies are rooted in ignorance and discrimination.
And the worst is yet to come, according to UNICEF’s Report, titled Africa’s Orphaned Generations. By 2010, if current infection rates hold, the ranks of children orphaned by AIDS may swell to 20 million.
To make matters worse, HIV/AIDS is decimating the ranks of people who have the skills necessary to help save these children, including aunts and uncles who have provided care. Teachers and health workers are dying in unprecedented numbers – in some countries much faster than replacements can be trained – and scarce development resources are being diverted to provide care and support for the sick and dying.
The profound trauma of losing a mother or both parents has devastating long-term implications, not only for a child’s well being and development, but for the stability of communities – and, ultimately, nations themselves.
Disconnected from societal norms and increasingly vulnerable to violence, sexual exploitation and political opportunism, children and young people easily turn to crime and armed conflict as a mode of survival. We need only to look at the ease with which unhappy or insecure children can be recruited as child soldiers to appreciate the dangers.
These children need more than inspiring words. They need leadership that touches their lives directly. They need action that is taken to scale – action that grows out of a unified and targeted strategy that will protect, respect, and fulfil the rights of all orphans.
In all of this, broad-based leadership remains the key – leadership that unites politicians, government, NGOs and civil society, the media, religious organisations, academics, women’s groups and human rights activists, and children and young people themselves behind the dream of a strong and stable Africa, a continent that protects, nurtures, and invests in its most precious natural resource, her children.
We already have hundreds of examples of innovative, effective initiatives that have brought benefits to tens of thousands of vulnerable, marginalised children. One is the newly reported record of success that faith-based organisations are having in Africa.
At the same time, we must ensure that the rights and needs of all orphans – and indeed all HIV/AIDS-affected children – are addressed in every phase of development planning and action.
And as Graça Machel has pointed out, all these children – but especially those who have lost one or both parents – need the support of their communities.
Not only do they require food, shelter and ready access to health services and education, but emotional support and family and community-based care.
Immediate concerns such as homelessness, malnutrition and protection from exploitation must also be addressed, along with basic education, medical care, legal protection and vocational opportunities, to say nothing of recreation. Community-wide counselling is needed to prevent and help eliminate discrimination and exploitation.
And like all children, orphans also need space to express themselves and be involved in decisions that affect their lives.
For now, UNICEF remains convinced that until an effective medical remedy is found, there is only one effective tool for curbing HIV/AIDS and the stigma that helps perpetuate its spread – and that is education, especially for girls.
Education has the power to break the silence surrounding HIV/AIDS – to empower children with the knowledge and life skills they need to protect themselves and their families, and to combat the stigma and discrimination that marginalises orphans and others who are affected.
The drive to provide Education for All stands to benefit all children; but it is especially beneficial for orphans. In Uganda, success in achieving high enrolment has meant far more orphans have been able to enter school.
Few other governments have explicit strategies to enrol and keep these most vulnerable children in school. That is why UNICEF regards the abolition of school fees as one of the most important single steps that can be taken to reduce barriers to schooling.
Yet we see a continent where HIV/AIDS has left close to a million children without teachers; where discrimination has forced untold numbers of AIDS-affected children to drop out, and where millions of children orphaned by AIDS have left school to care for siblings. In such circumstances, school fees and charges only put the right to free primary education that much further out of reach.
Our mutual obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child could not be more compelling – or more clear. Education is the right of all children – and the obligation of all governments.
In the face of this crisis, all of us have an obligation to mobilise commitment and to help build the capacity to act.
My Friends, none of us will ever forget Nelson Mandela’s stirring call to arms against HIV/AIDS without harkening back to the titanic struggle that defined his life. The conquest of apartheid was a shining affirmation of faith in fundamental human rights – and in the dignity and worth of the human person.
More than anything else, it was a victory for children, and for the future. And it was, in the end, a testament to the power of courage and commitment – and to the transforming effects of global solidarity.
The struggle against HIV/AIDS, in all its insidious forms, will require no less.