Kathmandu - 3 February 2003
Mr. Prime Minister, Mr. Secretary-General, Distinguished Delegates, Doctors Peter Piot and Nafis Sadik and Other Esteemed Colleagues and Friends - and all the young people who are part of this Conference:
It is a privilege to join you for this vitally important leadership gathering on HIV/AIDS in South Asia. And it is a pleasure to welcome the young people who are with us today. Ladies and Gentlemen, your participation and leadership have already helped lay some of the groundwork for this gathering - and I have no doubt that your additional contributions over the next two days will enrich and elevate the outcome of our deliberations.
Many points of view are represented here. Yet we begin our work united by a common vision - and a rising sense of alarm. For a disaster is looming over the peoples of this region - and unless there is a quantum shift in our efforts to confront HIV/AIDS, the scale of that disaster will be truly staggering.
Distinguished Delegates, that is the essence of the situation we must address over the next two days. In the process, we will need to confront some hard truths, such as why the HIV/AIDS pandemic is still shielded by an ongoing wall of silence. And we will have to bring both imagination and realism to defining the concrete ways in which the leaderships represented here can make a difference.
For it is my great hope, Mr. President, that two years from now, we will be able to look back on this Conference as an event that played a decisive role in transforming South Asia's response to HIV/AIDS.
Distinguished Delegates, the worldwide campaign against HIV/AIDS is a form of warfare - and in all wars, truth is almost always the first casualty. So let us not be diverted by the mythology that has accompanied so many debates about the relative impact of HIV/AIDS.
There are, to be sure, vast differences between South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, the disease's biggest killing field - culturally, politically, economically and geographically.
Yet for all these differences, the ingredients for an HIV/AIDS-driven catastrophe are nonetheless present in South Asia. They range from poverty and illiteracy, gender inequities, trafficking and sexual exploitation of girls, high intravenous drug use, unsafe sex - and the lingering sense of denial that helps spread the disease by pretending it is not really in our midst.
Distinguished Delegates, one has only to consider the latest figures from UNAIDS, which calculates that over 4 million people in this region are living with HIV - over one million of them young people, who account for about half of all new infections in South Asia, including a growing number of young women.
At the same time, infection rates among sex workers and intravenous drug users, already high, are still rising in all countries within the region - and it is through their clients, lovers and wives that the AIDS virus is now making ominous inroads among the general population.
Mr. President, the millions of children and young people affected by HIV/AIDS are living proof of the world's collective failure to protect them. This is the reality of South Asia: the tipping point has been reached, and the window of opportunity to act is closing rapidly.
Yet there are increasing signs that governments have begun to grasp the nettle.
It is said that an era ends only when its basic illusions are exhausted - and we can rejoice that the era of calculated neglect and ignorance about HIV/AIDS is finally ending now that the world has begun to awaken to the devastating threat that the AIDS virus poses to international peace and security.
Last year's General Assembly Special Session on Children marked an historic juncture in the struggle, when every government in South Asia reaffirmed its commitment to act on HIV/AIDS as part of the larger drive to build A World Fit for Children.
They promised to scale up efforts to prevent HIV infection among young people, to prevent mother-to-child transmission, to expand care and treatment to children and their parents living with HIV/AIDS, to fight stigma and discrimination, and to ensure care and protection for children orphaned and made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS.
In line with these commitments, UNICEF and its partners are focusing on building a protective environment for children - that is, an environment that not only safeguards children vulnerable to HIV/AIDS from exploitation and abuse, but gets them into school and keeps them there.
For education is crucial to the success of the struggle against the pandemic. In fact, UNICEF remains convinced that until an effective medical remedy is found, there is only one effective tool for curbing HIV/AIDS - and that is education
Only education can empower young people with the knowledge they need to protect themselves and their communities. Only education can combat the discrimination that helps perpetuate the pandemic. And only education can help children and young people acquire the knowledge and develop the skills they need to build a better future - the better future that the international community promised every child a decade ago, at the World Summit for Children.
Increased investments in education, as well as improvements in its quality, will be of immense benefit to the children of South Asia, especially for girls, who are among those most vulnerable to the AIDS virus.
A protective environment also includes strategies to counter discrimination against children affected by HIV/AIDS while providing them with the economic and social skills they will need to make safe choices.
Mr. President, I am pleased to note that in many parts of South Asia, leaderships have begun to help build that protective environment for children by matching their words with action.
India is providing an example through its efforts to scale up its programmes to prevent mother-to-child transmission, while every country in the region has begun to move strongly to control infection rates among sex workers and intravenous drug users. At the same time, we are seeing gradual progress in efforts to equip young people with the knowledge, skills and services to avoid infection.
An excellent example of strong and committed leadership acting at scale is under way in India's Andhra Pradesh, where an HIV/AIDS education campaign has already reached 600,000 secondary school students with life-saving information - and seeks to reach another 600,000 in the coming months.
I was also gratified to hear that similar campaigns are under way in other countries in the region, including Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan and Nepal. These are heartening signs. And now that a cease-fire initiative has been announced here in Nepal, new opportunities are looming - opportunities to make a real difference for children and for human development in this country.
There is much to do. The scale and intensity of the region-wide efforts to date, while commendable, are still far short of what is required to halt or even significantly the pandemic. What is needed, Mr. President, are stepped-up, revved-up programmes, energised by bold leadership and a committed drive for social mobilisation.
The young people of the region are appealing for strong leadership on HIV/AIDS - and they have committed themselves to working with you to protect their continent. As you heard our young speaker describe, young people representing every country in the region met here in December to discuss how best they could work with their governments to confront HIV/AIDS.
Mr. President, the young people of this region recognise that it is they who will determine the future course of the disease because it is they who are most at risk.
That is why they have called on governments of the region to give space to young people to participate and provide leadership.
It is why they have called for earlier, continued and better information on HIV/AIDS, as well as for access to youth-friendly health services, including access to condoms, STI and HIV counseling and testing services.
It is why they have called on parents and family members, teachers, religious and community leaders to be more open in discussing HIV/AIDS and the factors that make young people vulnerable to it.
It is why, Mr. President, they have called for a scaling up of programmes to stop trafficking and the sexual exploitation of young people, and an immediate expansion of services for young injecting users.
And it is why they have called for an end, once and for all, of the silence, stigma and discrimination associated with HIV/AIDS.
Mr. President, UNICEF wholeheartedly supports their initiative - and we are committed to working with them and with the governments of the region to make it a success.
Distinguished Delegates, let me close by posing a number of challenges for your discussion and consideration over the next two days - challenges that I believe will, if acted upon, help turn the tide in South Asia's battle with HIV/AIDS.
First, leaders must break the silence that denies the existence of HIV/AIDS, prevents discussion of the human rights violations fuelling the pandemic, and constrains the mobilisation of resources and partnerships required to expand prevention and care.
Second, efforts to ensure that every child goes to school must be intensified. This must include special efforts to enroll girls in school and keep them there; and to ensure that the children of the poorest and most vulnerable are reached. Too many children in this region are left to grow up and fend for them selves without education, leaving them open to exploitation and sexual abuse, a life of hard labour, and recruitment as child soldiers - all of which puts then in situations of extreme vulnerability to HIV infection. Third, young people's rights to information and services for HIV prevention must be fulfilled. Communication and peer education campaigns must be stepped up to ensure that young people are armed with the facts about HIV and its prevention; and a major push is required to improve young people's access to youth friendly services - including their access to STI treatment, HIV information, counselling and testing, and condoms.
Fourth, the special needs of young people involved in sex work or the use of intravenous drugs must be addressed. While expanded action is required to halt trafficking and sexual exploitation and drug use among adolescents, the realisation of these young people's rights to sexual and reproductive health must be a top epidemiological and ethical priority.
Fifth, we must put an end to all forms of gender-based discrimination and the exploitation and abuse of girls and women.
Finally, we must move with dispatch to mobilise all sectors of society in a stepped-up drive against HIV/AIDS, accelerating the pace to halt the virus before South Asia's window of opportunity slams shut. Government at every level, the rich range of religious and civil society organisations, the private sector - including this continent's dynamic and influential entertainment industry - all need to be engaged. And it is especially important to ensure the mobilisation and participation of young people and people living with HIV and AIDS - all of whom constitute a powerful and extremely committed resource in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Mr. President, Distinguished Delegates, with a region-wide population of 230 million young people who are vulnerable to HIV infection - a large and growing proportion of them at high risk - we must move not only to scale up national programmes, but to harness the power you possess for collective action on a regional scale. That is the real challenge of these two days.
The future of South Asia's children - and much more besides - depends on your resolve. But you can move forward knowing that in all your efforts, you will have UNICEF's partnership and unwavering support. And together we will build the better future that we owe our children - a future grounded in the sure and certain belief that in all our actions, the best interests of children must always come first.
I wish you every success in your work.