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Press centre

Veneman remarks in Johannesburg during Southern Africa visit

25 May 2005 - Johannesburg Press Conference

Ann M. Veneman, UNICEF Executive Director:

Thank you.  I am pleased to be here with Mr. Morris and Dr. Piot. 

Our appearance here together is a sign of how seriously we take the crisis in this region.

As you know this is my first field mission as Executive Director of UNICEF.  But I am not unfamiliar with the problems of this region. As U.S. Secretary of Agriculture I worked closely with governments across this region to help address hunger and nutrition issues.

Nothing captured the intersection of my previous role and my new role as thoroughly as did a visit to a remote mountain school in Swaziland yesterday, where we toured a highly successful model of school feeding. 

This program brings the technical expertise of several UN agencies together with the commitment of the local community and the Swazi government.  It is fundamentally a school lunch program like the ones I oversaw across the United States. 

But it is much more. 

Some of the food is donated by foreign governments through WFP. Some is cultivated on land adjacent to the school – including fruits and vegetables – using seeds from UNICEF and construction from FAO, and tended by local volunteers and the school children themselves. 

This model has brought several important results.  First, it has attracted virtually every child in the area to attend school.  Second, it provides care for children orphaned or made vulnerable by AIDS.  (There are 300-plus children in the school and about one-third of them have lost a parent.)  And the improved nutrition helps children learn and helps protect their health.  The longer they stay in school, of course, the better their prospects.

Today, getting adequate nutrition is one of the primary issues facing millions of people across southern Africa, especially women and children.  Food insecurity and poor nutrition contribute very significantly to the broader crisis here, which is driven by HIV/AIDS.

Over the last few days in Swaziland and South Africa I have seen remarkable initiatives to prevent the spread of HIV from mother to child, to treat HIV-positive children, and to care for the millions of children made vulnerable by the deaths of the adults in their lives.

Based on these successful models, and on what I have heard from the government officials, NGOs, doctors, and UN colleagues whom I have met, I believe that the tide can be turned against HIV over the next ten years.

Ten years is what we have to reach the Millennium Development Goals. 

I know it may sound out of place to talk about the Millennium Development Goals in a region so deep in crisis.  But I am convinced that this region can make progress toward the goals if governments, donors, UN agencies, universities, and community organizations unite around an effort to achieve them.

The Millennium Development Goals offer a strategic plan for the world.  That plan is no less relevant in southern Africa than it is anywhere else.  In fact I would argue that it is more relevant.  Our vision should not therefore be simply to fight HIV… but to advance health, nutrition, education, equality, and the protection of children as we go. 

None of the goals can be achieved in this region without making the fight against HIV/AIDS a central mission. Yet what we are doing to combat AIDS can also help countries advance toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals. 

The efforts we make to fight AIDS can bring progress in reducing hunger, getting more children in school, addressing gender disparities, and reducing child and maternal mortality. 

We know that an integrated approach to delivering these basic services is what works best, and I am pleased that governments and the UN are increasingly moving in that direction.  Working together, our chief aim must be to build national capacity to deal with the challenges of HIV and poverty over the long run. 

Nothing made that as clear as one of my visits in Swaziland yesterday. It was part of an innovative model called a Neighborhood Care Center, where the community has set up a place to provide food, learning, some medical attention and other services for children orphaned or made vulnerable by HIV.

At this rural neighborhood care center I visited, one of the adult volunteers from a nearby church had organized a Children’s Choir.  This is common at many of the more than 300 neighborhood care centers that have been set up with the help of UNICEF and numerous Swazi partners.

We heard the children sing.  Their voices were beautiful … but their words were haunting.  They sang about the abuse they had suffered, both physical and emotional, by the adults in their lives. 

It turned out that this song, originally written after the children began to speak to the choir director of their experiences, had a transformative effect in the community.   It forced adults to face the truth, and changed community attitudes.

And that’s what made the program so notable:  The care center had become more than a service point for orphans.  It had become a catalyst for community involvement and positive change.   

Everything we do must be done with the goal of empowering communities to transform themselves in ways like this.

The support of the United Nations and other organizations in responding to the crisis is essential.  But in the end our efforts must serve to empower governments and communities to build their own successful futures.

Mr. Morris has provided strong leadership in this regard as the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General.  It is an honor to join him and Dr. Piot on this visit to the region.   Thank you.




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