WSSD Symposium on Health and Sustainable Development
Johannesburg, 31 August 2002
Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen:
Anyone familiar with the agony of sub-Saharan Africa knows that it is impossible to speak about health and sustainable development except through the lens of HIV/AIDS - and the swath it is now cutting through a whole generation of children.
The statistics on infection rates speak for themselves: In 2001, an estimated 800,000 children worldwide were infected during birth or breastfeeding - 90 per cent of them in sub-Saharan Africa. There are proven interventions to prevent these infections - but ensuring that they reach the vulnerable is difficult, especially given the obstacles thrown up by poverty, culture and sometimes politics.
The stark fact is that for many countries, HIV/AIDS is destroying the very people and institutions that are needed if there is to be sustainable development - or any development.
I spent last week on a trip through neighboring parts of southern Africa, and the humanitarian crisis that has overspread six countries in the region tells us something about the sheer destructiveness of the HIV/AIDS pandemic when it combines with a variety of other factors.
The crisis in southern Africa is somewhat evocative of the idea of "a perfect storm," the term meteorologists used to describe a rare autumn hurricane in the north Atlantic, a monster created when every ingredient necessary for a worst-case scenario suddenly all came together.
What I saw last week are elements of an immensely complex crisis, but one clearly magnified by deepening poverty and the HIV/AIDS pandemic. There was almost a domino effect - in some places, the crisis first became apparent when food shortages developed - which raised child malnutrition rates, which led in turn to malnutrition-linked birth defects, followed by outbreaks of highly infectious child killers like cholera and measles. And all against a backdrop of HIV/AIDS.
It seems like a very long time ago that we viewed HIV/AIDS primarily as a health problem, rather than the across-the-board social catastrophe that it has become. Today we confront a nightmare world of children without parents, of classrooms without teachers, and of schools without students, a place where grandparents outlive grandchildren and orphans are objects of fear and abuse.
The statistics reaffirm what we have known for some time - that the virus is still proliferating faster and more widely than anyone could have imagined a decade ago; that it is undermining virtually every institution in society, including schools and education systems; and that it is young people who will determine the future course of the disease - because it is they who are most at risk.
The extent of that risk can be seen in UNAIDS numbers showing that in the most affected countries, up to 25 per cent of young people are HIV-positive.With this runaway infection rate, it is estimated that a third of today's 15-year-olds in the most affected countries will die of AIDS.
I have spoken with many young people from all over Africa who have shared their views on what should be done to slow the pandemic - and their perspective has only bolstered UNICEF's conviction that until a 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 - and reaffirmed most recently at the UN General Assembly Special Session on Children.
In the midst of disaster and chaos, education restores structure to young lives, trains the mind, rehabilitates the spirit - and offers life-sustaining hope to children facing futures that are, at best, uncertain.
That is why UNICEF is challenging governments, local leaders, teachers and young people to help transform schools and education systems into hubs of activity and enterprise in the battle against HIV/AIDS - 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.
Achieving truly sustainable development means creating a world that is fit for children - and that means a world with safe drinking water and clean sanitation and hygienic facilities in schools.
That is why UNICEF is calling on national leaders to ensure that sometime in the course of this decade, every primary school in the world be equipped with separate sanitary facilities for boys and girls - and that every school, without exception, have a source of clean and safe drinking water.
None of this will be easy. Transforming schools into safe, secure and healthy sanctuaries and sources of care and support will require bold and innovative thinking.
It will require more investment in education systems, which are themselves being ravaged by HIV/AIDS.
It will require the help of every sector of government, including health, social welfare, labour and justice.
And it will require new approaches, approaches unrestrained by old and comfortable assumptions. As UNICEF has repeatedly stressed, it is the kind of approach that must begin with the elimination of school fees, uniform charges and all other obligatory payments levied on families.
Indeed, it is long past time that we abolish every kind of financial impediment, including hidden charges, that keep poor and excluded children from school - and in so doing, violate the right of every child to free primary education.
We live in a time when HIV/AIDS has left close to a million children in sub-Saharan Africa without teachers; when discrimination has forced untold numbers of AIDS-affected children to drop out, and when 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, its primacy proclaimed by the Convention on the Rights of the Child and a host of other agreements, including the framework for action approved at the World Education Forum in Senegal.
In the face of this crisis, all of us have an obligation to mobilise commitment and to help build the capacity to act.
This includes breaking, once and for all, the "conspiracy of silence" that continues to hide the dimensions of the HIV/AIDS pandemic from the very people most affected by it.
It means supporting the development of policies and strategies; building partnerships; and mobilising resources. And it means redoubling our efforts to support programmes that address the rights of young people to development - and participation.
My Friends, if this Johannesburg Summit does nothing else than build new momentum in this struggle, it will go down in history as a smashing success.