Urgent Action for Children on the Brink
9 September 2002
It is a pleasure - and a personal privilege - to join you for this vitally important consultation. We are here because we are deeply concerned: concerned about the plight of children in Africa, of the mounting adult mortality and orphans crisis that is disfiguring this continent, and concerned about the inadequacy of the response. We are here to discuss this crisis and to, together, propose ways forward to invigorate and expand the movement for Africa's children, especially her orphans.
Twenty years into the pandemic we are seeing, with brutal effect, the impacts the HIV/AIDS pandemic is having on Africa. Today over 11 million children in Africa are orphaned, many millions more are living in families touched by HIV/AIDS, nearly 3 million children are today living with AIDS in Africa, and the pandemic steamrolls on with over 7,000 children and young people being infected daily. While, on the one hand, we must recognize and applaud the recent increase in global attention to HIV/AIDS, the reality also is that this is not yet making a dent in the threat to Africa's children.
The silence that surrounds children affected by HIV/AIDS and the inaction that results is morally reprehensible and unacceptable. If this situation is not addressed, and not addressed now with increased urgency, millions of children will continue to die, and tens of millions more will be further marginalized, stigmatized, malnourished, uneducated, and psychologically damaged.
The implications of this are monstrous. The profound trauma of losing a mother or both parents has devastating long-term implications, not only for a child's survival, well-being and development, but for the stability of communities - and, ultimately, nations themselves. And by creating millions of orphans as it kills the very men and women vital to the functioning of society, HIV/AIDS sows the kind of political instability that can lead to strife and outright war.
It is an increasingly common sight to encounter groups of children wandering through the streets of Africa, children growing up without the care, love and protection of adults, and who as a result are more often than not malnourished, denied their right to basic education - and ultimately marginalised. Disconnected from societal norms and increasingly vulnerable to violence, sexual exploitation and political opportunism, children and young people can easily turn to crime. as a mode of survival. .
My friends, I have the highest hopes for our meeting tomorrow. Drawing on the deep and diverse collective experience and wisdom in this room, my hope is that our ideas will trigger a quantum shift in our collective response to the orphan crisis.
To move forward we need to recognise the failure of not seeing the crisis for what it is. For failing to talk loudly about its impacts on children. And the failure of not mounting emergency and development responses commensurate with the problem. What is disturbing about this failure is that it represents a silence - the OVC crisis is not talked about and not acted upon. Why?
Why ? - Partly because the problem of HIV/AIDS has been hidden. There are time lags between HIV infection, death and orphaning which mask the crisis
Why ? - Partly because leaders have been overwhelmed by the size and complexity of the crisis - resulting in action paralysis.
Why ? - Partly, because it means talking about what fuels the epidemic.
Why ? - Partly, because the OVC crisis reflects cleavages within society and highlights a number of failures of governments in delivering on their promises.
And partly, because the OVC crisis requires rethinking and the shifting of priorities and budgets.
There is no doubt there are many reasons for this silence. But, the bottom line is, they must no longer be used as an excuse for inaction. The human costs of this conspiracy of silence - both immediately and in the longer term - have been far too costly for Africa and its children.
Friends, from my own experience - reinforced in recent weeks by my impressions of the vast humanitarian crisis unfolding in much of southern Africa - tells me three things.
Firstly, that we need to reinvigorate the Global Movement for Children on the African continent.
Secondly, that we cannot act on behalf of children in Africa without directly, honestly and boldly addressing HIV/AIDS.
And thirdly, that traditional African strengths such as the extended family and community structures are collapsing under the weight of HIV/AIDS. Let me be frank, families and communities in many parts of Africa are no longer coping.
In my opinion, leadership is key in changing all this, in agitating, leading and mobilising this movement for children. And this leadership, to be effective in touching the lives of the many millions of children touched by AIDS, must be broad based and embracing of government and civil society, community groups, NGOs, activists and politicians, civil society, the private sector and international community, and involving children and young people themselves. Uniting this leadership and movement there must be a common vision, of building a strong and stable Africa and of ensuring that in doing so we invest in, protect and nurture Africa's most precious rescue, her children.
This leadership must be articulated in practical ways - not merely in sermons, statements and declarations - but in ways that touch the lives of children. This leaderships must lead the way to halt rising levels of young child mortality and malnutrition; reverse rising rates of school push out and exclusion; and stop the exploitation and abuse of children. These leaderships must give confidence, inspiration and material support to individuals, families and communities who day-in-day-out are trying hard to serve children but often lack the resources, information and advice and solidarity required to sustain and complete their efforts. These results for children are, and must be, the true and only indicators of the mobilisation of Africa's leaderships for children.
Clearly the OVC crisis is a catastrophe of unprecedented scale and hurt. As such we need to ensure that OVC are considered in all development planning and action. We also need to ensure that the immediate needs of this large and growing population of marginalised children are met. Here the messages must be clear - these children need food and shelter, access to medical care, counseling and psycho-social support, and protection from abuse and violence. They need to live under the protection and care of adults, and they also need the space and respect for their right to be able to express themselves and be involved in decisions that affect their lives.
From my travels these last weeks, there is one priority that stands out, and that is education, and particularly for girls.
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.
That is why UNICEF is challenging governments, local leaders, teachers and young people to help transform schools and education systems - centred not only on reading and writing, but on preventing the spread of the disease while supporting those affected by it - and strengthening the communities where they live.
This means using schools to promote more youth participation and commitment; more services aimed at youth; more parental involvement; more education and information, not only for young people but for families and communities; more protection for girls, orphaned children, and young women; and more partnerships with people with HIV and AIDS.
My Friends, each of us has the power to help make the world a better place for children - a place where every child can grow to adulthood in health, peace and dignity. Your work here in Johannesburg is a testament to what we can achieve when that power is put to work. Our challenge tomorrow is to think creatively and devise actions that will fundamentally and irrevocably ensure a quantum shift in the global response to children affected by HIV/AIDS.