Issue Areas: +health+
This posting contains a powerful speech given last week in Nairobi by
Stephen Lewis, Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for HIV/AIDS
in Africa, to a gathering of African religious leaders from 30 countries.
Lewis calls for the religious leaders to fully engage and galvanize
the battle against AIDS. He also calls for them to take the initiative
to fight the racism that lies beyond the developed world's failure to
respond with urgency. For the declaration of the religious leaders at
the conference see http://www.africaaction.org/docs02/debt0206.htm
and for more background on the conference see http://www.hopeforafricanchildren.org/
Address by Stephen Lewis, Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General
for HIV/AIDS in Africa to the African Religious Leaders Assembly on
Children and HIV/AIDS - Nairobi, Kenya - 10 June 2002
I feel entirely privileged to address this meeting; it's actually the
first time that I've ever addressed a large gathering of religious leaders,
and I am appropriately chastened by so auspicious an occasion. What's
more, I want to speak with direct and sometimes uncomfortable frankness,
so I appeal to all of you, at the outset, to let the milk of human kindness
flow through your veins and to treat me with compassion.
Your eminences, the direct impact of the pandemic on children, in all
its aspects, will be set out for you later this morning by Carol Bellamy,
the Executive Director of UNICEF. She is obviously the right person
to do so. For my own part, suffice to say that there are now estimated
to be 13 million children orphaned by AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa, with
the number almost certain to double by the end of the decade. In human
terms, in the history and literature of vulnerable children, there's
never been anything like it. In fact, of course, there's never been
anything like the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Comparisons with the Black Death
of the 14th century are wishful thinking. When AIDS has run
its course --- if it ever runs its course --- it will be seen as an
annihilating scourge that dwarfs everything that has gone before.
What it leaves in its wake, in country after country, in every one of
the countries you represent, are thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds
of thousands or, eventually, even millions of children whose lives are
a torment of loneliness, despair, rage, bewilderment and loss. That
doesn't mean orphan children can't be happy; it simply means that at
the heart of their individual beings there is a life-long void.
The numbers are overwhelming, the circumstances are overwhelming, the
needs are overwhelming.
Nor do I intend to quote, in a pretend-learned fashion from religious
texts. It would be presumptuous and foolhardy on my part. That is your
collective world, not mine.
Rather, I would wish to suggest to all of you, as religious leaders
drawn from across the continent, that it is time, it is well past time
that you summoned your awesome reserves of strength and followers and
commitment to lead this continent out of its merciless vortex of misery.
There is no excuse for passivity or distance. No excuse for immobility
or denial. No excuse for incremental steps when you, collectively, have
the capacity to rally both Africa and the world if you choose to do
The timing could not be better. Let me tell you why, and bare my most
protected inner thoughts in the telling.
I think we may have reached a curious and deeply distressing lull in
the battle against AIDS. Over the last two years, much has happened.
The political leadership of Africa has come alive to HIV/AIDS, conferences
have been held in profusion, from Durban to Addis to Abuja to New York
to Ougouadougou. PLWAs have raised powerful and insistent voices, the
Global Fund has been established, goals and targets have been set, drug
prices have been driven down dramatically by generic manufacturers,
there are more data and analysis and reports and commentary and studies
and sheer newspaper copy available than any library on earth could accommodate,
and significant numbers of modest interventions are being pursued.
So it isn't that things have ground to a halt; it's just a cumulative
feeling of inertia rather than energy, of marking time, of oh so slowly
gathering forces together for the next push, of incrementalism raised
to the level of obsession. The Global Fund has received no new sizeable
contributions for many months. The G8 Summit later this month in my
country, Canada, has made it clear in advance that significant additional
money will not be forthcoming. The NEPAD document --- the new partnership
for Africa --- which is the heart of the G8 discussions, and the centrepiece
for the future of Africa, deals hardly at all with HIV/AIDS. A series
of reports to be released in the near future, just prior to and during
the international AIDS conference in Barcelona next month, will acknowledge
progress made, but at the same time recite blood-chilling statistics
on the situation of youth and children -- statistics which make you
wonder whether the world has fallen into a stupor of indifference.
It's not only that we can't rest on our laurels; it's the fact that
the laurels are fig-leafs. Let me be brutally honest: in the dead of
night, I sometimes think to myself that we're losing the war against
AIDS -- although I do recognize the feeling for what it is: an unwarranted
moment of despair. What we need is another massive shot of adrenalin
to take the battle to the next level, and you, your eminences, the representative
religious leadership of Africa -- you are the shot of adrenalin, the
energizing force, the catharsis of faith, hope and determination which
can propel us forward.
That's the reason for this conference. As always, children and women
carry the burden of abandonment, vulnerability, stigma, shame, poverty
and desperation. They constitute, for you, the cause you must lead.
You constitute, for them, the meaning of salvation in terms both spiritual
Who else, beyond yourselves, is so well-placed to lead? Who else has
such a network of voices at the grass-roots level? Who else has access
to all communities once a week, every week, across the continent? Who
else officiates at the millions of funerals of those who die of AIDS-related
illnesses, and better understands the consequences for children and
families? Who else works on a daily basis with faith-based, community-based
organizations? In the midst of this wanton, ravaging pandemic, it is
truly like an act of Divine intervention that you should be physically
present everywhere, all the time. I ask again: who else, therefore,
is so well-placed to lead?
So where is that leadership? Dare I say that the voice of religion has
been curiously muted? There are notable exceptions as there always are.
Some of the finest work combating AIDS on the continent is done through
religious communities. But you will admit that, overall, the involvement
of religion has been qualified at best. I haven't the slightest interest
in recrimination or finger-pointing. My interest, our interest, should
only be, where do we go from here?
I want to suggest, in the strongest possible terms, that you should
resolve, at this conference, in the name of all the children, infected
or affected, to seize the leadership, re-energize the struggle, and
turn the pandemic around. I want to suggest, in the strongest possible
terms, that you leave Nairobi this week, with a solemn pledge to yourselves,
that you will never again tolerate, even for a moment, lassitude or
passivity in the face of so monumental a catastrophe. I want to suggest
that the draft declaration of the conference, when definitive, be embraced
as though it were legally binding.
All of us, who are your friends, understand the difficulties. We know
that certain of the faiths have problems around sexual activity and
the use of condoms. We know that there are internal struggles around
the leadership roles of women -- not to be taken lightly when gender
is such a visceral part of the pandemic. We know that the religious
leadership at all levels of society needs training, in order to do an
effective job in educating your adherents. We know that even amongst
religious leaders, there are numbers who are HIV-positive, and have
themselves felt the lash and pain of stigma from colleagues. Religious
leaders are human; they face the same challenges and foibles as other
But religious leaders invoke a higher level of morality; that's why
every contentious issue must be treated afresh. The sacred texts, from
which all religion flows, demand a higher level of morality. And if
ever there was an issue which bristles with moral questions and moral
imperatives it's HIV/AIDS. The pandemic, in the way in which it assaults
human life, is qualitatively different from all that has gone before.
There is no greater moral calling on this continent today than to vanquish
No one expects you to do it, one faith at a time. Somehow, you must
come together, in a great religious partnership, so that everyone is
involved, at every level. You should formalize the arrangement; you
should create an actual structure. Your draft plan of action mandates
the World Conference on Religion and Peace to make it happen. Let it
Nor can you do it by faith alone. You have to extend the partnership
to representatives of civil society, to associations of PLWAs, to the
UN family, to women's groups everywhere, to the private sector and to
government itself. The pandemic demands that you move beyond the protective
insularity of religion. It is often argued that there must be a separation
of church and state, that is to say, the religious and the secular.
But AIDS puts the argument to the rout. If the church or the mosque
or the temple don't work in concert with the state, then death is the
Let me take it further. There should be a series of targeted interventions.
Religious communities provide vital care to the ill and the dying at
village level. Somehow, the individual projects must be taken to scale
across the countries themselves. Religious leaders can confront stigma
from every religious podium in every community, changing the values
of the community through repetition and education, week in and week
out. Religious leaders should lead a campaign to abolish school fees
throughout the continent, because whether it's fees, or the costs of
registration, books, or uniforms, vulnerable and orphaned children,
invariably penniless, are denied the right to go to school. You want
a moral issue: why should a just society, a society which has ratified
the Convention on the Rights of the Child, allow such a state of affairs?
One visit to the slums of Kabera, here in Nairobi, will reaffirm the
sorry consequences for children. It is entirely consistent therefore,
that religious leaders should throw themselves behind the Hope for African
Children Initiative because there is no dilemma more urgent, more demanding,
or more intractable than the dilemma of orphans.
Let me take the argument further still. Religious leaders must do something
about the mothers who are infected and are dying prematurely, leaving
behind those orphans who the wander the landscape of Africa, soon to
be an entire generation seething with resentment and fear. May I strike
a personal note? The thing I find by far most emotionally difficult
as I travel through Africa, is meeting with young women, stricken by
AIDS, who know they're dying or soon to die, with two or three young
children, and they ask me, frantically, 'what's going to happen to my
children when I've passed -- who will look after them?' And then, in
an understandably accusatory tone, they say to me 'What about us'? And
then they add, without using these exact words, but the meaning is clear:
'You Mr. White Man, you have the drugs to keep us alive, but we can't
get them. Why? Why must we die'? And I want to tell you: I don't know
how to answer that. I have never in my adult life witnessed such a blunt
assault on basic human morality. In my soul, I honestly believe that
an unthinking strain of subterranean racism is the only way to explain
the moral default of the developed world, in refusing to provide the
resources which could save the mothers of Africa.
But right now, as I stand before you, I want to know: what will the
religious leaders do about it? Surely, in the face of such a violation
of fundamental moral tenets, you have an obligation to intervene.
And that takes me to my final proposition. In the last analysis, religious
leaders are the best chance to influence the political leadership of
the North as well as of the South. You have contacts everywhere. You
have brother and sister churches and mosques and temples on all the
continents. They support you, they often fund you, they show solidarity
with you. Your religious sway is not just Africa, it's the world. And
what politician would refuse to meet with you? Who turns down a request
for a meeting from a religious leader? You have an entry to the citadels
of secular power that none of the rest of us enjoy.
What does it mean? It means that you should have a say in the Global
Fund -- you should storm the rhetorical ramparts and demand that the
major OECD countries contribute the money which they have promised ---
the famous .7% of GNP --- but never delivered. You should have some
sort of collective standing or voice at the G8 meeting. You should have
a separate session at the Barcelona AIDS conference in July. You should
have a presence in international decisions, wherever those decisions
are made. You want a precedent?: the Vatican has observor status at
the United Nations, and often speaks, including at the UNICEF Executive
Board; no government on that Board, at least while I was there, ever
took exception to the Vatican's right to participate.
Religious communities historically have followed one
of two tracks. There was the religious leadership which successfully
fought for the eradication of slavery in the Congo; the eclectic leadership
which supported the conscientious objectors in the Vietnam War and helped,
thereby, to bring that foul war to an end; the Islamic and Hindu leadership
which supported UNICEF's immunization campaigns in Asia and the Middle-East,
overcoming the fears of the citizens, and doubtless saving millions
of children's lives; the Judeo-Christian leadership that resisted the
infant formula companies and supported the right to breast-feeding.
And then there was the other, woeful track; the religious leadership
that supported apartheid; the religious leadership that was complicit
in the genocide in Rwanda; the religious leadership that was silent
during the holocaust.
No one wants a choice between the two. It's simply that when the history
of the AIDS pandemic is written, you want it said that every religious
leader stood up to be counted; that when the tide was turned, the religious
leaders did the turning; that when the children of Africa were at horrendous
risk, the religious leadersled the rescue mission. It's what all of
us beg you to do; I submit to you that it's what your God, of whatever
name, would want you to do.
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