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To African Religious Leaders' Assembly on Children and HIV/AIDS

Imagen del UNICEF

Nairobi - 10 June 2002

Mr. President, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates:

UNICEF is grateful for this opportunity to join you in this important Assembly to help advance the cause that unites us all:- building a World Fit For Children by putting an end to HIV/AIDS, and putting an end to the toll that it is taking on children.

Combating HIV/AIDS was one of the promises to children we made together at the Special Session on Children just one month ago in New York. It is a promise and challenge that, I believe, won't be won without the voice, active leadership and involvement of religious organisations.

Its not possible to overstate the devastating impact of this virus on children. At last count, over 40 million people are living with HIV - roughly a third of these children and young people. Around 800,000 children under 15 are infected each year, most through mother-to-child transmission. Nearly 14 million children under 15 have been orphaned by AIDS. And by 2010, in some of the hardest hit countries of Africa, around one-fifth of all children under 15 will be orphans, creating a breakdown in families that is already having a devastating impact on children, communities and, soon enough, nations.

With the unprecedented global mobilization to combat HIV/AIDS that has taken place over the past two years, we should be entering a period of optimism. At the highest levels the wall of silence around HIV/AIDS has been broken. We now have strong political commitment and government engagement. More and more organizations and stronger partnerships are being forged between government, NGOs and civil society. Major funding is being mobilised. We now know pretty well what works and what doesn't and where we should be investing our resources. And, thanks to the UN Special Session on HIV/AIDS last year, the world has agreed on a set of concrete, child focussed, goals and targets to halt and reverse the HIV epidemic among young people; to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV; and ensure that all countries develop and implement strategies to provide care and support for children infected and affected by HIV/AIDS.

Mr. President, these goals are attainable, and the possibility of large-scale action to defeat HIV/AIDS has never been greater.

Yet, despite this possibility, the pandemic rolls on. 15,000 people are infected with HIV every day - 7,000 of them young people. Children are still suffering and dying in numbers that no earlier generation could have imagined possible and entire societies are being buffeted by the pandemic.

Given the remarkable progress of the last two years, how can this be?

It all comes back to silence. We may have broken a wall of silence among policy makers and decision-makers. But there is a second wall of silence out there -- a wall that is keeping young people from learning about HIV, and stigmatizing those who have it. And unless that second wall of silence is brought down, all the hard-won gains of recent years will have been for nothing.

Mr. President, this second wall of silence is much more intimate and personal -- and consequently much harder to breach -- than the first. It is the silence between husbands and wives, parents and children, boyfriends and girlfriends, teachers and student, health workers and patients, and also between religious leaders and the people they serve. It exists because of our discomfort to acknowledge the disease and the factors that drive it; our reluctance and hesitation to educate our young about sexuality and the dangers of growing up; and our failure to dispel the stigma and counter the discrimination surrounding it. This second wall of silence is about intimacy, sexuality, relationships - things we usually hold deeply personal, hidden and private. It is this "hiddeness" that is driving the epidemic

Yet because of this second wall of silence the majority of young women in developing countries still do not know how to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS. Because of it, millions of children orphaned by AIDS are stigmatized and shunned, are forced out of their homes and schools, and denied health care. Because of it, struggling to survive, many children soon become high risk targets for contracting HIV themselves.

Breaking down this second wall of silence requires more than lobbying in the corridors of power, more than pressuring governments and partners for more attention and resources. Breaking this wall requires a different approach:- it requires the building of trust and confidence, a sense of safety in discussing the intimate, and the development of a sense of inclusion and solidarity.

To do this, action is required on the ground, in families and communities, and no-one is better placed to do this than religious organisations. You have trusted personal relationships and the confidence of the people you serve. You have moral authority. And you are on the frontlines of this pandemic. Your colleagues are found in every city, town, village and rural district on the continent. You can spread the word about what it takes to confront and beat this terrible disease through your mosques, temples and churches, through your lay people and your women's groups and youth organizations. The bottom line is that you have a unique power within your organisations which, if mobilised, could change the face of this epidemic. The challenge is to realise it.

The very fact we are meeting here today is a major step in mobilising this potential. This conference is a bold and visible sign of committed leadership by Africa's major religious groups, who are taking an increasingly prominent and active role in the fight against HIV/AIDS, and in particular, for children. This meeting represents a significant step forward from last April when the Anglican primates declared that "We raise our voices to call for an end to silence about this disease - the silence of stigma, the silence of denial, the silence of fear. We confess that the Church herself has been complicit in this silence. We have raised our voices in the past, it has too often been a voice of condemnation."

Mr. President, our objectives remain the same: we must strive to prevent HIV infection in children and young people, as we care for and support those who are infected and otherwise directly impacted by HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Prevention remains a top priority. That is why UNICEF and our partners are working to ensure that every young person in Africa has access to basic information and services to avoid infection -- and make sure they have it by 2005. Girls and young women, in particular, must have such knowledge and services, for they are the most vulnerable to infection.

In working with young people to prevent HIV infection, UNICEF is committed to "A-B-C" and to helping them make responsible and safe decisions about the challenges they face while growing up. A is abstinence. B is be faithful and C is proper condom use. Abstinence means just what it says. Young people should delay the onset of sexual activity. When they become sexually active, ideally as part of a committed relationship, then fidelity to one partner is vital to ensure mutual respect and love and to minimize the risk of HIV infection. And finally, for many young people, access to and proper use of condoms is key to reducing HIV risk and to saving lives. Underpinning all this UNICEF believes that helping young people lean about and develop their own moral codes - about responsibility, respect, trust and honesty - and the life skills necessary to act on these values is key to the prevention of HIV.

These clear messages and strategies for prevention are contained in a major UNICEF-backed campaign called "What Every Adolescent has a Right to Know":- a campaign to ensure that all young people are armed with the facts about HIV and how to prevent it; and to communicate these in ways that have meaning and influence in the lives of young people. We look forward to seeing how UNICEF can team up with you on this initiative to ensure that all young people in Africa - from Capetown to Cairo to the Cape Verde - are armed with these life saving facts before the end of 2005.

Mr. President, in addition to working together to halt the epidemic, we must also scale up our efforts to ensure care and support for children infected or orphaned by HIV/AIDS. Today, nearly 14 million children under age 15, almost all in Africa, have lost their mothers or both parents to AIDS. While the impact of this loss differs across families, communities and societies, one thing is clear: a child's life often falls apart when he or she loses a parent.

Again, the role and contribution of religious organisations - particularly at family and community levels - is key to ensuring that AIDS-affected children are not subject to stigma, discrimination and exclusion -- and that they grow up in a loving, protective and caring family like environment. At an absolute minimum UNICEF believes that there are a number of things which we, as adults, parents, community and religious leaders must assure. These are that all children whose families have been touched by AIDS must be healthy and well nourished; they must be well clothed and live in safe shelter; they must be supported and encouraged to complete their basic education; they must be involved in decisions that affect their lives; and they must live under the protection and care of a responsible adult who acts in the best interests of the child.

Mr. President, these points are the minimum that must be achieved for all children touched by AIDS, both orphans and those who have been directly impacted by the disease. They are doable and measurable - things important in the lives of children, things which we must commit our organisations to make real. Action to achieve them must be launched from a solid foundation of decisive leadership, serious resources and extensive partnerships involving governments, NGOs, civil society, the private sector, faith-based groups. And this action must be centered on families and communities. They are bearing the brunt of the unprecedented tragedy and, consequently, they are doing the most important work.

Together, UNICEF, Africa's religious groups, NGOs and active partnerships like those with World Conference for Religion and Peace and the Hope for Africa's Children Initiative can help meet these challenges. We share the same goals for combating HIV/AIDS, and we share strong ethical values and a commitment to the fulfillment of children's human rights.

Mr. President, Distinguished Delegates: While we appreciate the scale and complexity of these challenges, at the end of the day there will be only one way to measure our success in combatting HIV/AIDS - and that is in the lives of children. The bottom line is are young people getting the information and support they need to protect themselves? Are girls being empowered to take charge of their lives? Are infants safe from infection? And are children orphaned by AIDS being raised in loving, supportive environments?

My friends, these are the questions we must ask. They are the ultimate measures of the effectiveness of our leadership, of our on-the-ground work, and of our commitment to partnerhship.

Thank You.