20th International AIDS Conference
July 20, 2014 Melbourne, Australia
Mr. Michel Sidibe, UNAIDS Executive Director;
Ms. Jan Beagle, Deputy Executive Director, UNAIDS
Honourable Mayors and City Officials;
representatives of ASEAN, World Bank, Global Fund
Mr. Steve Kraus;
UNAIDS Regional Director, Asia Pacific;
Partners and Ladies and Gentlemen.
It is indeed an honour and privilege to be here in Melbourne at this important international AIDS conference and more so to be addressing the session on cities for social transformation towards ending AIDS.
My role is to highlight some reflections on leadership in action towards the response to AIDS.
I would like to share some basic principles that i use and also some of my experiences as an advocate of AIDS in Fiji and also in the Pacific region. I hope that it will encourage us all in continuing the work that we had committed to in 2011 at the UN General Assembly in New York.
As a leader, I am also open to learning from you on the best practices in your countries. The important lesson about response and advocacy on AIDS is that we already know what works and what does not work, so we should continue to exchange information freely.
Much has been discussed about the need to increase action on leadership in the HIV/AIDS field. From the early days, it had been acknowledged that strong leadership was fundamental in ensuring an effective response at the community, national, and global levels.
It has become increasingly clear that, without effective leadership, progress and success is almost impossible.
The development of effective leadership is critically important to strengthening social justice and transformation and promoting human rights in all aspects of the HIV/AIDS response.
Good leadership helps to ensure the protection of the vested interest of the vulnerable groups’ and the equitable distribution of services by ensuring that the voices and the needs of all, including the key populations, are not only recognized but are also reflected in all actions that are taken.
I would like to share some important aspects of leadership in action which will highlight my experience as an advocate of the AIDS response.
Firstly, let me stress that leadership resides in everyone. It is important to understand this because advocacy is not only for leaders but for everyone as leadership can be encouraged and developed.
In my former role as speaker of the house of representatives and the UNAIDS special representative to the Pacific on HIV, and now in my current role as President of the Republic of Fiji and the Special Representative of Fiji on HIV/AIDS as well as the HIV advocate for Fiji’s HIV board, I am a vocal advocate of the AIDS Response.
Some people have said perhaps too vocal. That is not a problem for me. That is their problem.
Both vision and political will are necessary to address inequalities and change policies and practices that may contribute to the spread of HIV or impair the delivery or uptake of programmes.
Last week, i launched the research report on the integrated behavioral and biological survey for sex workers in Fiji.
As you are all aware many times key populations such as sex workers, men having sex with men, transgender and other marginalized groups are not given the freedom and the audience to freely express themselves.
The launching of the report marked a major departure as one of the key populations, the sex workers, through the research findings spoke to us clearly on key concerns of the sex worker community.
For me as a leader, i had no doubt whatsoever about my duty to launch the report and to bring their concerns to light so that their issues are properly addressed which would in turn bring about systemic social change, and create a more caring, compassionate and a more equal Fiji.
Secondly, addressing HIV requires courage, forbearance, patience and understanding because we are persuading people in our communities to change their beliefs and attitudes to deal with sensitive and sometimes unpleasant issues.
Often times culture, social and religious taboos are used loosely to prevent us from discussing matters that are so vital in our lives. This is because of great ignorance.
With persistence, time and advocacy, much has changed to allow people like myself, the government, the faith based organizations, civil society to talk about sex, HIV and condoms in our community and empowering parents to talk about HIV in their homes.
I have never had any problems about discussing sex and sexuality and HIV/AIDS I a family educational or communal setting. My earlier work agains sexually transmitted infections such as syphilis and gonorrhea was an automatic lead into my advocacy against HIV/AIDS.
I come from a country of less than a million in population. I am proud of my country and i do not want to see Fijians perish unnecessarily at a young age. That is the main reason why i take this advocacy seriously.
The HIV/AIDS work that i do commenced way before i became the president of Fiji.
Fiji, in the past decade, has paved a path towards the millennium development goals and introduced a strategic direction under the government leadership and partnership. Good leadership needs to have clear vision and direction.
The Fiji HIV decree that was gazetted in 2011 has played a pivotal role in the response to HIV in Fiji, and is internationally compliant in addressing human rights violations that acted as barriers to the HIV response.
Finally, over the last two years, as president of Fiji and the special representative of Fiji on HIV/AIDS, and as the HIV advocate of the HIV/AIDS board, i have personally visited 149 secondary schools out of a total of 179 in Fiji talking about HIV/AIDS to youth and advocating for safe sex, the use of protection and the prevention of HIV, STIS and teenage pregnancies.
I respect the sensitivities of my cultural heritage - of the land (vanua) and the religion (lotu) for they are part of me. It is for that very reason that we need to engage both – the faith based organizations and the community on the issue of HIV and not just the education or health sectors.
As I mentioned before, leadership resides in everyone and we all have a responsibility to protect our people. The task is not over and will not be over.
We have many more hills to climb and by this, I am reminded of the words of the great leader, Nelson Mandela:
"I HAVE WALKED THAT LONG ROAD TO FREEDOM. I HAVE TRIED NOT TO FALTER; I HAVE MADE MISSTEPS ALONG THE WAY. BUT I HAVE DISCOVERED THE SECRET THAT AFTER CLIMBING A GREAT HILL, ONE ONLY FINDS THAT THERE ARE MANY MORE HILLS TO CLIMB. I HAVE TAKEN A MOMENT HERE TO REST, TO STEAL A VIEW OF THE GLORIOUS VISTA THAT SURROUNDS ME, TO LOOK BACK ON THE DISTANCE I HAVE COME. . . BUT I CAN ONLY REST FOR A MOMENT, FOR WITH FREEDOM COME RESPONSIBILITIES, AND I DARE NOT LINGER, FOR MY LONG WALK IS NOT ENDED.”
The fight against HIV does not stop with the end of the Millennium Development Goals and now envisioning post 2015, the vision seems more clearer and closer than ever before on achieving the bold declaration of UNAIDS, and zero new infections, zero discrimination and zero aids related deaths.
With dwindling resources, it is a critical time for me and my fellow leaders to be more engaged in the response to AIDS. I know that the response to AIDS is at a crossroad which means that our task must become substantially stronger and more strategic if our people are to be saved.
The response must be transformed to a strategic one and we as leaders, have a crucial role to play in helping achieve this social transformation.
I will continue to speak about aids and take action and responsibility to initiate and promote the rights based response to aids. For this and to prove the saying, ‘walk the talk’, advocating for prevention and protection is my business and what i do best.
That is the only way to achieve zero new hiv infections, zero discrimination and zero aids-related deaths.
Those of us in advocacy are in the business of saving lives. Now that is not a bad business to be in.