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Parliamentarians must lead fight against HIV

Parliamentarians must lead fight against HIV

Toronto, 15 August- In the words of PNG’s Minister for Social Welfare, Dame Carol Kidu, the Pacific is the missing region at the International AIDS Conference in Toronto, with Africa being the focus of everyone’s attention.

But on the third day of the biggest ever international gathering of people engaged in fighting HIV, Pacific representatives addressed a captivated audience as they discussed the accountability of parliamentarians in the response to HIV.

“The Pacific could in theory show the way – if we combine our traditional strengths with proactive, interactive leadership we can make a difference. But will we, or will we be too late?” asked Dame Kidu. “HIV is increasingly being debated in Parliament, but often the debate is polarized by emotional and moralistic judgments rather than analysis of the social, developmental and public health issues.”

As Dame Kidu noted, “PNG has led the Pacific region in terms of legislation relating to HIV, but legislation alone will not change the reality on the ground. Strong political commitment, community engagement and ownership of the issue are fundamental to protecting our women and children from the real impact.”

PNG now has a more than 11,340 (2004 SPC estimates) living with HIV. According to Dame Kidu, a tragic emerging pattern of transmission is through young girls having sex with older men – ‘the 4 M factor: mobile men with money and multiple partners’.

Dame Kidu is also concerned about the social stigma attached to the disease and the need to attribute blame, which has lead to community silence on torture and sorcery-related killings of women.

The number of orphans is growing, while sexual abuse makes children very vulnerable to HIV. Poverty means that they often have to help support their families and travel alone to markets, exposing them to greater risks and reducing their access to education.

“There is still much legislative work to be done – our laws on prostitution, abortion and homosexuality, for instance, date from archaic British laws inherited from the Queensland Criminal Code and never amended since Independence,” said Dame Carol Kidu.

For Fiji’s Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, retired politician and UNAIDS Special Representative to the Pacific, “Pacific Island countries and territories are at a turning point in the response to HIV and we must react before HIV jeopardizes our languages and cultures. Parliamentarians have a Herculean task ahead of them and it is time to abandon complacency.”

Ratu Nailatikau argued that lessons have already been learnt in other regions of the world that the Pacific has yet to learn. “Pacific leaders must face their commitments and admit that we will have a disaster on our hands if we don’t immediately combine all our efforts.”

Ends

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