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Consultation on the HIV Prevention Treatment Decree in Fiji

November 17, 2009       Novotel Convention Centre, Lami

Distinguished Guests and Participants. 

Good Morning, Bula Vinaka, Namaste.

Thank you for the opportunity you have given me to address you this morning. I am deeply honoured.  I offer you all a warm welcome to this consultation on behalf of the government.

As the former UNAIDS Special Representative on HIV for the Pacific but now the Fiji Special Representative on HIV and recently as President of Fiji, I am proud to be an advocate of a humane and integrated approach to the challenge that HIV presents us.  

Addressing HIV requires courage, forbearance, patience and understanding because we are persuading people in our communities to change their attitudes and to deal with sensitive and sometimes uncomfortable or taboo issues.

The Pacific Region, indeed the planet, has never before faced such a profound threat.   Aids has already destroyed entire generations in Africa – we have already sadly experienced that with measles in Fiji early on in our history - and the same scenario faces us again in the pacific because our isolated ocean home is no longer the remote place it used to be. 

We are part of the global village and in that regard we are vulnerable.  From the perspective of our small and fragile States in the Pacific, the death of one individual is the loss of part of ourselves and our collective wellbeing.  It is not just Fiji or Papua New Guinea or Samoa that needs to be concerned; it must be on everyone’s radar screen.

One of the reasons that HIV has spread so rapidly is the cultural, social and religious taboos that are associated with sexual matters generally and sexual intercourse in particular.  Because it is a matter that is little talked about in our cultures, homes and families, there is consequently great ignorance.  

Can we afford to remain blissfully ignorant?  Of course not!  Doing so will result in our youth dying in their thousands or our resources being totally devoted to dealing with the impact of HIV rather than for infrastructure or development.

The status of women and youth in our societies is yet another challenge. When women are perceived as property or considered of less worth than males, they are treated as second rate citizens. Women are more vulnerable to HIV biologically and culturally.  We can not sacrifice women on the altar of the male ego, arrogance and selfishness. 

HIV and Aids forces us to reflect more deeply on what sort of communities we are in and those we want them to be.  Too often our youth are not heard.  Know your place, be respectful of your elders, they are told.  Yet they are the most sexually-active and therefore vulnerable group in our populations. 

They have a right to know about HIV in its entirety.  What they do not know may kill them.  Does any parent, grandparent or other relative wish that for a son, daughter, nephew, niece or grand child?  I think not.  We want all of them to grow into responsible adults living useful lives in society. 

It is the elders who need to take the initiative. They must allow their youth access to knowledge and the responsibility that comes with it.  Our youth are entitled to no less than that.

Change does not come easily.  But we do not have a choice.  It is that simple. 

Either we decide to speak openly, or we take the conservative and unrealistic approach and preach abstinence.  Even worse, we remain silent.

We must make available the information and the necessary support or we face the prospect of lost generations. 

I respect the sensitivities of my cultural heritage - of the vanua and the lotu for they are part of me and i am part of them.  It is for that very reason that we need to engage both – the community and the church -  on the issue of HIV. 

Cultural and moral strictures and precepts provide the comfort of certainty and boundaries but they do not save lives.  We have to recognize that a large number of sexual relationships occur outside cultural and religious codes of accepted conduct. Dealing with the HIV challenge obliges us to recognize realities on the ground. 

This is the world as it is – the real world - and not the world as we wish it to be.

Traditional and religious leaders continue to play a very important role in our pacific societies.  An unpalatable message is more readily absorbed if it is conveyed by those we respect. 

All this will require patience, forbearance and fortitude, but also tremendous energy and courage to overcome the barriers, the obstacles, to scaling up and intensifying our efforts. 

Leadership is about providing people with a vision and direction.  However, it needs to be done in a way that persuades, enables and empowers people rather than discounting and diminishing them.  The authority structures we have to deal with are not our enemies.  Let us all be clear about that.  We have to state our case strongly with determination and, repeatedly, and with a degree of respect for those we seek to persuade.  An essential element of this task is the creation of space for members of the community to be able to communicate meaningfully. 

Space for elders and youth, men and women, chiefs and commoners, clergy and secular groups, homosexuals, lesbians and heterosexuals to interact and share their histories.   Experience has shown that HIV will yield to understanding rather than bigotry. 

Throughout the Pacific there are common notions of hospitality, compassion and caring that resonate throughout our islands and the ocean that is our common boundary.  These values sometimes sit uneasily with the moralistic perspectives which Christian Protestant traditions brought to our shores. 

The HIV challenge requires all of us to rediscover and affirm those ideals that we cherish.  It also obliges our faith leaders to put into practice what the scriptures say, “love your neighbour as you love yourself” from Luke chapter 10 verse 27 which is at the heart of all the religious traditions. 

Often we see no difficulty in extending it to relatives and friends but “neighbour” has a far more expansive meaning.  It must include those living with HIV or Aids. 

We must also ensure that the barriers to sustaining our responses are eliminated:  we must budget for renewed and scaled up responses and ensure we identify our skill and resource needs for making this all happen.

It is within this understanding – an understanding that responding to HIV effectively requires addressing the social, political, religious and cultural barriers in a rights respecting manner that we are here to consider and discuss Fiji’s draft HIV Prevention and Treatment Decree.

It is my sincere hope that this draft decree meets all the international standards of good practice in responding to HIV through a human rights framework and that the final product will be an example of good legal practice for our pacific neighbours and the world.

I wish you the best in your discussions.

Thank you, Vinaka Vakalevu, Dhanyavaad.