|Sierra Leone's Vice-President Samuel Sam-Sumana and Children’s Forum Network President Bamine Boye with children and leaders attending the Conference on Children and AIDS, held in Freetown.|
By Alusine Savage
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone, 9 January 2007 – About 355 children from communities across Sierra Leone called on national leaders to make children a priority in the response to HIV and AIDS during the Conference on Children and AIDS, held in Freetown.
The conference, which took place in November, was a follow-up to Sierra Leone’s support for the Unite for Children, Unite Against AIDS global campaign.
“Children are the soul of the country and if anything is not done to stem the spread of the AIDS scourge, then Sierra Leone risks losing its soul,” said the country's Vice President, Samuel Sam-Sumana, who officially launched the three-day conference.
A strategic national response
Also speaking at the ceremony was the President of the Children’s Forum Network, Bamine Boye. He commended government leaders for setting up a National AIDS Secretariat and for the progress made against AIDS so far, and asked them to “ensure that AIDS does not take away our mothers and fathers, our families and our childhood."
The national response to HIV and AIDS needs to strategically focus on children, he added.
“If we are to make any meaningful progress in the fight against HIV and AIDS, then it is the children that can provide the best hope for defeating the disease,” Mr. Boye said.
‘Our dreams and our future’
During the conference, the Director of the National AIDS Secretariat, Dr. Brima Kargbo, said that stigma and discrimination remain a major challenge, while over 60 per cent of young people lack the knowledge and skills to protect themselves from HIV and AIDS.
“The full impact of AIDS on children and young people needs to be addressed,” said UNICEF Representative in Sierra Leone Geert Cappelaere. “They are forced to bear witness to the needless suffering and death of their parents. They contract the virus from HIV-positive mothers and go without their life-saving drugs. Or they are deprived of their entitlement to education and social services because of poverty, stigma and social discrimination.”
Sierra Leone has a youthful population. Of its 5.3 million people, almost half are below 18 years of age. About 48,000 adults and an estimated 5,200 children are living with HIV. Access to counselling and testing services for HIV is limited.
Mr. Boye of the Children’s Forum Network called on the government, the international community, development organizations and the private sector for support the fight against HIV and AIDS. “Do not let HIV and AIDS rob us of our youth, our dreams and our future,” he declared.