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UNICEF backs off Tongan HIV role claim

Mon 21 Apr 2008 In: International News View at Wayback

UNICEF, which carries out the United Nations HIV and AIDS work in the South Pacific, has today backed down from over-stating its role in the drafting of what it then incorrectly claimed is Tonga's first HIV Strategy. Meanwhile, Tonga's main HIV/AIDS organisation, founded by glbt people in the island Kingdom, has welcomed the continued inclusion of sexual minorities in what is in fact a draft of Tonga's second HIV Strategy, but is concerned that it was not consulted about input into the detail of the Strategy. Concern was raised in New Zealand at a misleading information release from UNICEF's Policy, Planning and Evaluation Programme (PAPE) which quoted UNICEF's Pacific Office HIV and AIDS Specialist, Fadumo Qasim Dayib, as saying the March 2008 draft Strategy is Tonga's "first," and "is a major step for the tiny kingdom." The information sheet announced the strategy as an initiative of the Tongan Government "with assistance from the UNICEF Pacific Office and input from national partners." In fact non-Governmental input into the second Strategy was led by the Pacific Regional HIV/AIDS Project (PRHP), an organisation quite separate from UNICEF. Alarm bells also rang at the Pacific People's Project, an HIV education initiative based in the Auckland and Wellington offices of the NZ AIDS Foundation, when the UNICEF information release airbrushed out the draft Strategy's specific inclusion of glbt Tongans as a particularly at-risk group. UNICEF instead referred obliquely to "young people and sexually active groups." Joey Mataele, Executive Director of the Tonga Leti's Association (TLA) which does much of the HIV awareness and prevention work in Tonga, has confirmed the second Strategy specifically mentions glbt people as a group vulnerable to infection. "We are pleased that we are still in there, even though we were not consulted," he says. Glbt Pacific people were clearly identified at the 2005 Pan Pacific Regional HIV/AIDS conference as being a group significantly at risk of contracting HIV. Enquiries by last week revealed that although glbt Tongans are not mentioned in the UNICEF release they are clearly targeted in the Tongan draft Strategy; also the existence of the first Strategy created six years ago; the inclusion of glbt Tongans in that first Strategy; and the lead role of the PRHP in the March drafting process. The distributor of the UNICEF release, Fiji-based Donna Hoerder, today issued an apology for the false claims, though she made no mention of the absence of a direct listing by UNICEF of glbt Tongans as a group specifically targeted for education and awareness work. Tonga currently has fifteen identified cases of HIV, although the World Health Organisation believes there could be over a hundred more unidentified cases. Mataele says so far the means of transmission in those cases, whether through straight or same-sex sexual activity or intravenous drug use, are unknown. However, he believes that "two or three" gay people with health compromised by the virus contracted it overseas and have returned to Tonga to deal with their illnesses with family support. Mataele says most of those with HIV are apparently straight men or their wives and it is likely these infections occurred overseas, in places such as Los Angeles. He notes that, as in many Pacific Island nations, there is often a discreetly blurred line between heterosexuality and homosexuality in Tonga. Entrenched church opposition to open discussion of sexual matters, and teachings against homosexuality, still hinder the TLA's work, "but that is mostly from the older ministers," says Mataele. He is finding that younger church leaders have a better understanding of issues relating to sexual minorities and HIV. Mataele says a number of Government ministers and officials are supportive of the draft second Strategy and he believes it will be approved by the Government. The Tonga Leti's Association's only funding comes from the annual Miss Air New Zealand Galaxy Beauty Contest and its patron is Tongan princess Lupepau'u Tuita.    

Credit: Daily News Staff

First published: Monday, 21st April 2008 - 9:21pm

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