12 February 2004
Speech by the Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP on HIV and AIDS at the Church of England General Synod
This year we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the victory over apartheid in South Africa. Church leaders such as Trevor Huddleston and Desmond Tutu will always have an honoured place in the history of that struggle, but Archbishop Ndungane of Cape Town has rightly called on the churches now to play a similar role in the fight against AIDS. He says "We are all living with AIDS, whether infected or affected...AIDS is the new struggle."
The Archbishop is right. In the time it takes me to speak this sentence another human being will die of HIV and AIDS. He or she probably lived in one of the poorest countries in the world. He or she was probably a breadwinner, a parent, or a carer. He or she was certainly someone’s son or someone’s daughter.
Across the world, 60 million people are HIV positive. 10% of the world’s AIDS cases are to be found in just one African country; Nigeria. In the worst affected places, one in four people could die from this disease. Malawi, which depends on education to teach the next generation and develop its economy, is losing more teachers to AIDS each year than there are new ones qualifying.
The day before yesterday I was in Awasa in Ethiopia. A thriving town in a country of great poverty, it has a high rate of HIV and AIDS. I went there to visit a community organisation run by women for women with HIV is trying to tackle stigma and provide support to those who have been abandoned by their families.
Two days before that I was in rural South Wallo, to the north of Addis Ababa, to hear from three school pupils who have organised a campaign against HIV and AIDS by taking the message to their fellow students. Two groups of people in Africa trying to do something and acting now.
AIDS presents an unprecedented challenge to the developing world. It is not just the human cost of the massive loss of life, and the suffering of individuals and their families. It is also the cost to development: the damage of this escalating epidemic to the very capacity of countries to do something about hunger, extreme poverty and health and education services that are inadequate or simply do not exist.
Today I want to ask for your help because I believe we can halt this epidemic. We understand the illness and its causes. We know what needs to be done. Just look at what has been done.
In Uganda courageous political leadership and determined efforts by health workers, community groups and churches, have turned the tide of infection. Despite the fact that Uganda once had one of the world’s highest rates of HIV, year on year the number of new infections continues to fall.
In Senegal, HIV never really took off. But this wasn’t just good luck. Once again, political commitment, the bravery to speak out, a free media which provided information, and determined efforts to make things happen and change people’s behaviour, stopped the epidemic in its tracks.
In Thailand, HIV raged at very high levels among the most stigmatised in society: sex workers and drug users. And then it turned around. The government working alongside people, helping them to take the steps they needed to save their lives. And it has succeeded.
This is not a hopeless battle. We have the means to defeat HIV and AIDS.
What we need is the will, including from the international community.
What we need is leadership
What we need, in a word, is action.
And that is why in December last year, the UK Government published its Call for Action on HIV and AIDS which sets out what we need to see happen over the next year to make progress:
- Stronger political direction;
- Better funding;
- Better donor coordination; and last but not least
- Better HIV and AIDS programmes
The UK is the world’s second largest bilateral funder of work on HIV and AIDS - last year we spent £270 million (up from £38 million in 1997). We are helping to finance the Global Fund. In December, we doubled our funding for the UN AIDS programme of co-ordination. We did this because we know that despite big increases in funding over the past couple of years, the world still needs more money for AIDS.
But even the money we have is not always being spent well and wisely. In many poor countries, already hard-pressed governments are spending too much time dealing with donors, which can mean not enough time tackling the epidemic. We need to help them to cut through bureaucracy and concentrate on actually fighting the disease on the ground.
That is why the Call for Action also stressed the importance of what we call the ‘Three Ones’. Every country needs just:
- one HIV and AIDS strategy;
- one HIV and AIDS Commission; and
- one way of measuring and reporting progress
I was delighted to see that in the report you will be debating later today you have already responded to the Call for Action. In that report, Christian Aid also ask us to spend more. Let me assure you that the UK will play its part. We will persuade others to narrow the funding gap and we will do so ourselves.
We will prioritise yet more HIV and AIDS work within the additional £320 million which will be spent on UK development aid to Africa in the next two years. And as we increase funding and develop our policy, I am keen to hear your views about what more we should be doing. We will be organising a consultation event for community-based and faith-based organisations in the next few months.
I also welcome your analysis of how HIV is devastating economies. You put challenging questions to the World Bank and IMF in asking them to reconsider their macroeconomic policies. I would welcome any specific ideas you have about how this can be done. Your report also emphasises the importance of the role played by communities in general, and people living with HIV and AIDS in particular. I agree. Governments cannot tackle AIDS alone.
As the Church, you have often led the way, caring for people. But sadly there are still those who lead in the opposite direction.
Stigma and discrimination because of HIV status and because of sexuality continue to be a heavy burden. As we try to get treatments to people, we learn that many are simply too frightened of HIV to get tested. Women would rather not get the treatment they need – to save their lives, or stop their children from getting HIV - than cope with the fear and stigma of HIV.
This is just one area where we need courageous church leaders speaking out, embracing people with HIV and AIDS. I know that many of you have done so, l but it needs to happen more. We will only defeat discrimination if societies, cultures and institutions change.
When Clare Short spoke to Synod in 1998, she said – in her inimitable way – that the Church should talk less about sex and more about poverty. The problem with AIDS, is that it demands that we do both.
The Church is very good at talking about moral values and family life, but one of the many challenges that AIDS poses is the need to speak about sex in different ways. To speak about options for those who do not live up to their own, or the church’s, ideals. In Uganda and Senegal religious leaders have been directly involved in HIV prevention campaigns.
But let’s be clear, the ABC approach - Abstinence, Be Faithful, Use Condoms - works because it stresses all three: abstinence doesn’t work for all the people all of the time; being faithful is a wonderful ideal – but it is sadly too often a one way thing; and so condoms are part of the answer.
In November I met a young woman from Kenya who told me about the group of HIV-positive women she runs. 75% of the women in her group were infected by their husband - their sole sexual partner. Here is a real leadership challenge for the churches.
How do you speak to the men in your congregations, in a way that reflects reality as well as ideals? What messages do you give about a woman’s role? If women are told simply to respect and obey their husbands, or service their needs, how does that affect the choices they make, the risks they take?
AIDS is a challenge to us all to work differently, and tackling AIDS is about doing just that, but have any of us really done enough about AIDS ? Last year, when I addressed the UN special session on AIDS, I said:
"If we are honest, we should have done more sooner and we could all do more now." I was speaking then of governments, but I suspect these words will also resonate within the church.
In the very early days of the epidemic, society, including the church, was quite hostile to those with HIV. With a few shining exceptions, there was a distaste for the heady mixture of sex and disease. Judgement was passed on those who had succumbed to a deadly sexually transmitted infection.
We have all made a great journey since then.
Today, faith based organisations play a leading role in the fight against HIV. You have an extensive network of people and institutions, especially in rural areas, where few other institutions exist. Many Africans are far more committed to their churches than to other social or political organisations.
This is why so many churches and faith-based organisations have an incredible history of helping people with AIDS. In many countries in Africa, you are providing a lot of the schools, and nearly half of the health services.
We are beginning to see excellent treatment programmes in many mission hospitals. But these must start to reach more people. New HIV treatments can improve life expectancy dramatically for people living with AIDS – and help them to continue to work or to bring up families. The UK stands ready to help achieve the ambitious goal to get 3 million people on treatment by 2005.
We are determined that these treatments must reach the poorest - and that’s why we are urging WHO to make sure half of those who benefit are women and girls. Getting women on treatment is not only good for women, and it is good for society. If mothers live longer, we will have fewer orphans.
I know that these are issues close to the church’s heart as you care for orphans and support the growing network of families fostering orphans. One example is the partnership DFID has funded with Christian Aid and the Church of the Province of Southern Africa; a wonderful model of how we can work together to provide new and more effective ways of helping orphans and the families who care for them.
And so my plea to you today is for the voice of the Church to be heard loud and clear.
The Church of England’s leadership on development has been a beacon.
Your campaigning work on debt has made a real difference.
You have helped to make us all think about this small and fragile planet that we share with one another.
About how we are more interdependent now than any other time in human history.
About how this thing we call globalisation is, in fact, the product of human activity in which travel, and trade, and technology and television have shrunk the globe.
And all of this has taught us that a world in which 1 in 5 of our fellow human beings live on less than 67 pence a day; a world in which 1.2 billion people won’t have any clean water to drink today; a world in which 113 million children have no classroom, no textbook, no teacher and no window on the world because they do not go to school; a world that will never be secure unless we tackle poverty, injustice and inequality. And AIDS creates all three.
And so my hope is that we can live up to the words of the prayer that begins each day in Parliament and asks this of us as Members:
"May they never lead the nation wrongly through love of power, desire to please, or unworthy ideals; but laying aside all private interests and prejudices keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of all mankind."
Defeating AIDS would indeed improve the condition of all mankind. And this is the reason why we look to you, your leadership, your faith and your commitment, because working together around the world, we can change things.
The old African proverb says "The best time to plant a tree is ten years ago. The next best time is now."
If we are to beat AIDS we must indeed act, and the time to act is now.
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