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Leaders talk about HIV/AIDS and children

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA, 24 September 2004 - More than 150 senior African and European Parliamentarians convened to discuss how parliamentarians can address the impact of the AIDS pandemic on children.

"When it comes to caring for the children and families affected by HIV/AIDS, political leaders are major leaders at the local and national levels. They are trusted, their networks reach people, and they care," said Per Engebak, UNICEF’s Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa. "UNICEF is eager to work even more closely with parliamentary groups to battle this daunting foe. Members of parliament must address the issue of orphans as a matter of urgency – they have the ability and power to halt the waves of further degradation.” 

Notable government leaders and parliamentarians such as Minister Essop Pahad - representing South African President Thabo Mbeki - as well as speakers of Parliament from Namibia, Lesotho and Ethiopia are participating in the milestone consultation. The main aim of the meeting is to tap the political leadership and resources of parliamentarian networks to respond to the HIV/AIDS crisis in African societies, in particular the orphaning of millions of children.

"Decisive action by political leaders is the common, critical factor", says Hon Peter Schieder, President of Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly. "This meeting demonstrates our renewed commitment to confront a disease that is decimating our communities. As political leaders we are here to publicly launch a global movement on AIDS."

Dr. Jan Nico Scholten, President of the European Parliamentarians for Africa (AWEPA), the lead organization hosting this event calls this “consultation a rare opportunity for African and European Parliamentarians to make their collective voices heard on a matter as totemic and ravaging as the crisis of children orphaned and made vulnerable by AIDS. Parliamentarians can play a key role in the response to the HIV/AIDS and orphan crisis.  They are opinion makers who have the capacity to further mobilize political will to expand care."

"When parliamentarians work together on a major issue such as children orphaned by AIDS, they not only improve their own capacity to respond, but are in a better position to leverage increased commitment from other leaders", explained Dr. E. Anne Petersen, Assistant Administrator, Bureau for Global Health, USAID. ”Solutions to this crisis already exist at the community level, what is lacking is the political will to make orphans a global priority. The US Government through the President’s Emergency Plan, is committed to addressing the needs of orphans together with the parliamentarians and national governments.”

In just two years, from 2001 to 2003, the number of children orphaned globally by AIDS rose from 11.5 million to 15 million, with the vast majority of those children living in sub-Saharan Africa. The size of the crisis is overwhelming traditional systems of caring for children.

Children affected by HIV/AIDS are engulfed by grief and distress as their parents fall sick or die. They face economic hardship and many become malnourished, withdraw from school, lose property and other family wealth and inheritance rights and become vulnerable to abuse. Studies show that children who lose their parents to AIDS are more likely to suffer from abuse than children orphaned by other causes, largely a result of the stigma and discrimination so often associated with AIDS. These many vulnerabilities also put them at greater risk of contracting the virus themselves.

Political leadership and commitment are vital in protecting the rights of children orphaned and made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS. Supportive policies, laws and budgetary allocations can directly address and ease the abuse, violence, exploitation and discrimination these children face.

"Political leaders have tremendous influence throughout Africa, and particularly at the community level where they have the leadership and authority to advocate for compassionate care and support for all vulnerable children", explained, Ms Laetitia Van den Assum, Special Ambassador for HIV/AIDS, The Netherlands.  "Many quality programmes that emphasize prevention and provide care and support for orphans and HIV-affected families are run by faith-based groups. They have the moral leadership to reverse negative attitudes towards AIDS and to promote an enabling and caring environment".

The Parliamentarians are joined by speakers equally committed to addressing the plight of children in the context of the ravaging pandemic. Among these are Ms. Mary Robinson, President, Ethical Globalisation Initiative, and Ms.Sibongile Mongella, Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund.

Heads of state and leaders of international organizations alike are seeking ways to mitigate the impact of AIDS as the disease wipes out the development gains of the past decades, particularly in the realms of mother and child health, life expectancy and education.

At the end of the two day consultation, delegates will adopt a Declaration and Plan of Action outlining the commitment of political communities to address the rights and needs of children affected by AIDS.

For further information, please contact:

Jessica Longwe, AWEPA Southern Africa Representative, +021 4621767, awepajml@sn.apc.org

Beatrice Karanja, UNICEF Communications Officer, +254 722 205482, bkaranja@unicef.org




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