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HIV/AIDS Conference: Listen, Learn, Live

Tue 1 Nov 2005 In: HIV

"When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise." – Proverbs 10:19 Feiloakitau Kaho Tevi, Executive Secretary of the World Council of Churches, started and ended his address on Strengthening Leadership at the Pan Pacific AIDS Conference last week with the Bible verse above. He presented it as slightly tongue-in-cheek, assuring the audience it was a good justification for him keeping his speech short. But read that verse again and consider it in the context of a burgeoning HIV epidemic in the Pacific, fuelled by silence and ignorance. The idea that silence is wisdom, and words = "sin" is a frightening one indeed. Although church leaders in the Pacific have shifted significantly in their moral rigidity on HIV/AIDS in the past year or two, the fact that Bible verses like this are still pulled out are a cause for concern. This use of the Bible did not go unnoticed by Stephen Vete of UNAIDS Pacific, who followed Tevi with a lengthy address that went way over time (perhaps he was attempting to single-handedly make up for the silence of the churches?). “I don't know whether I'm going to encourage you all to sin,” he said. “But we've been saying for years the churches need to be more vocal in speaking out against the injustices surrounding HIV/AIDS.” As far back as 1996, there have been calls at the highest levels of government for leadership to get behind HIV prevention in a meaningful way. In April of that year, the United Nations Development Program published a report called Time To Act. The “creation of a supportive and enabling social environment which treats people with HIV and AIDS compassionately” was noted to be of particular importance. “As I sit at this conference nearly ten years later, the same message is still coming through,” said Vete. “Leaders are only now starting to make concrete commitments. We need to mobilise people so they know their rights. Church leaders can play a big part in convincing their congregations.” But, he argued, this also worked in reverse. People within churches need to be more active, and place demands on the leadership. “The Church is only as good as the members of the Church. It's such an important part of our lives, we need to reclaim it,” he said. The theme for World AIDS Day 1999 was “Listen, Learn and Live”. It is hard to think of a better antidote to the dangerous “ABC” alphabet of ignorance. “Beware of vested interests. It's not against our religion to talk openly about subjects,” Vete said. “Our traditions and cultures have been mistinterpreted by many leaders. It's frightening.” Ethnic differences and sexual orientation have been and continue to be exploited by “unscrupulous leaders”, he continued, urging the audience not to be diverted from the real problem. “Instead of praising the Lord for making us the way we are, we focus on sexual acts and sin,” he said. “My son has a basketball t-shirt which reads: ‘if you're not living on the edge, you're taking up too much room'. Many of our leaders are taking up too much room.” However, he still found time to end on a positive note. “We have a marvellous framework and some very committed people,” he said. “We need to translate this political will into action.” Sooner rather than later would be good. Dr Ross McLeod of the Asia Development Bank presented some spine-chilling projections on the spread of HIV. By 2015, they're predicting that at least 15% of all MSM in Papua New Guinea will have HIV, and that's a minimum. Less conservative projections go as high as 30%. By 2020, life expectancy across the board in that country is predicted to drop by nearly thirteen years. “The costs involved are enormous,” said McLeod. “Households will feel the front line of impact. With higher numbers of employees falling sick, there's lower staff morale, and a collapsing economy as families fall into poverty.” Epeli Ganilau, chairman of Fiji's Great Council of Chiefs, also called for an end to the silence. "There is a lingering sense of denial that certain sexual practices, like homosexuality, do not exist in the Pacific," he said. "We as leaders must break the silence that fuels the spread of HIV/AIDS. We all saw how the world stood by while AIDS ravaged Africa. We cannot afford to stand by." Chris Banks - 1st November 2005    

Credit: Chris Banks

First published: Tuesday, 1st November 2005 - 12:00pm

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