Berlin, 28 November 2000
Ladies and Gentlemen: I am very pleased to be here on behalf of the United Nations Children's Fund in our capacity as chair of the co-sponsoring organisations of UNAIDS. The Report that Peter Piot has just described paints a troubling and immensely complex picture. Three major facts stand out:
· First, young people continue to bear the brunt of the disease. As the UNAIDS Report notes, in severely affected countries, up to 25 per cent of young people are HIV-positive - and we estimate that about one-third of today's 15-year-olds will die of AIDS. Moreover, in the year since the last UNAIDS Update, an additional 600,000 children under the age of 15 have become infected.
· Second, without effective interventions, Eastern Europe, South Asia, and the Caribbean could soon see their HIV/AIDS caseloads grow to proportions not unlike sub-Saharan Africa's.
· Third, in the face of a disease as devastating as any war in history, the global response to HIV/AIDS remains inadequate. In a world where many countries and people are awash in resources and knowledge - and where 191 countries have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which proclaims the right of all children to health and security - we have done far too little to defend children and their families against HIV/AIDS.
One other thing is indisputable: It is young people who will determine the course of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. That is why we must do everything necessary to arm them with the knowledge they need to protect themselves and their communities - and in this effort, strengthening schools and education systems is a crucial first step.
So we are today challenging governments, local leaders, teachers and young people themselves to do their part to make schools a hub of activity and enterprise - centred not only on reading and writing, but on stopping HIV/AIDS - and supporting those affected by it as well as the communities where they live.
It has been obvious for some time that there is a critical need for AIDS education. It has been estimated that 90 per cent of HIV-positive people in sub-Saharan Africa are unaware that they are infected. In many countries in the region, we found that more than 25 per cent of women aged 15 to 19 were unaware of even one effective way of avoiding HIV infection. And in a representative sampling of opinion in the region, over 30 per cent of young women expressed the view that a healthy looking person could not possibly be infected with the AIDS virus.
As the Report shows, people with education are better prepared to act on information about how to prevent HIV/AIDS. And because education gives them more options in life, they tend to be careful about exposing themselves to the risk of HIV.
For example, in western Uganda, UNAIDS found that childbearing women between the ages of 15 and 24 who had some secondary education had lower rates of HIV infection than their illiterate counterparts. And in countries with high infection rates, an analysis of young people between 15 and 19 showed that teen-agers with some education are far more likely to use condoms or to avoid casual sex.
That is why we are urging national leaders to empower communities - especially young people and the poor - to mobilise themselves to act, and to do so in ways that they are able to see and understand the results of their actions. And in this effort, reshaping education systems into bulwarks against HIV/AIDS and a source of support for the AIDS-affected must be a paramount goal.
It will require bold and innovative thinking on how the capacities of schools and education systems can be developed, protected and harnessed for national development - especially at the very time when HIV/AIDS is ravaging education systems. Last year, more than 860,000 children in sub-Saharan Africa lost their teachers to AIDS. Infected children often drop out because of discrimination. And many children orphaned by AIDS leave to care for themselves and siblings.
In the face of this, communities must work to transform schools into centres for the promotion of youth participation and commitment; for more services aimed at youth; more parental involvement; more education and information, using schools and other sites; more protection for girls, orphaned children, and young women; and more partnerships with people with HIV and AIDS.
Such steps are already under way in such places as Zambia, where increasing numbers of young people are working as educators and peer counsellors, helping to de-stigmatise HIV/AIDS for other youths, and easing the burden on health workers.
Replicating these efforts on a far larger scale will not be easy. But the cost of inaction would be incalculably high - and that is precisely why we must begin now.
First and foremost, we must mobilise commitment and capacity to act. This includes breaking, once and for all, the "conspiracy of silence" that continues to hide the dimensions of the HIV/AIDS crisis 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 mobilise and support programmes to address the rights of young people to development and to participation.
These include supporting the right of adolescents to information and life skills, as UNICEF and its partners are doing through a range of activities in schools and through NGOs and the media in countries like Uganda, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Namibia; promoting youth-friendly services, such as health care in countries like Zambia and Kenya; and building safe and supportive environments with programmes that draw on the help of peers, parents, teachers and health workers in countries like Cote D'Ivoire and Mali.
These are important beginnings. But more larger-scale approaches are needed - and they must be put in place quickly if the world is to make significant headway in stemming the disease. It is undertaking to which UNICEF and all its partners are unshakably dedicated, building on our practical experience - and guided by the Convention on the Rights of the Child.