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Peter Piot

Opening Plenary, World Education Forum
Address by Peter Piot, Executive Director, UNAIDS
Dakar, 26 April 2000
On behalf of the seven co-sponsoring organizations of UNAIDS - the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS - I very much welcome the opportunity to talk with you about an issue which concerns us all - namely the global epidemic of AIDS which has become one of the greatest leadership challenges of our time.
AIDS is not just another disease that already kills more people than any other health problem here in Africa. There is no other single factor at work in the world today that so systematically undermines the gains of decades of investment in human resources, education, health, and the well-being of nations. An epidemic that threatens so terrible the education goals that were set - An epidemic that erodes the demand for education as more and more children and families are affected, that diminishes the supply of teachers and with it, of course, the quality of education.
Today, over 34 million adults and children are living with HIV in the world, 24 million in Africa alone - but the Caribbean, parts of Asia and Eastern Europe are catching up fast. This is truly a global problem. Half of the 16,000 new infections each day are among young people between 15 and 24 years. And I could go on for a long time about the stigma, about orphans, about the economic impact etc. However it is perhaps the more important lesson concerning AIDS of the last decade is that we are NOT powerless against the epidemic. Communities all over the world, and whole nations - from Thailand to Australia to Brazil, to Uganda, and our host country, Senegal, have demonstrated that it is possible to turn the tide of new infections and provide care for those already infected.
In this kind of situations, education has an essential role to play. It is the major means, if not the only means, by which we can prevent infection. It is a key vehicle for changing attitudes and beliefs, for empowering children, and for building tolerance and compassion. For these reasons, there is close synergy between the goals of Education for All and those that UNAIDS pursues. And for that reason I am proud that the 5 UN co-sponsors of the Forum are also cosponsors of UNAIDS.
Let me be absolutely clear - AIDS constitutes one of the biggest threats to the global education agenda, because what HIV - the AIDS virus - does to the human body, it also does to society; it undermines the very cells that are meant to protect us, which are key to the very fabric of society - I am talking about the farmers, the doctors, the politicians, the teachers… For example, in the Central African Republic, as many teachers died in service as retired between 1996 and 1998, and most died from HIV infection. In Cote d'Ivoire, an average of five teachers die every week of the school year - most of these from AIDS. In Zambia, the equivalent of two thirds of all teachers trained annually died from AIDS in 1998. I believe that we have not yet fully grasped the implications of this silent tragedy.
But AIDS has serious consequences beyond the education system itself. As families are affected by the disease, they may no longer be able to pay school fees, and withdraw their children from school. Girls are particularly disadvantaged by this.
As the Secretary-General so forcefully reminded us this morning, in the era of AIDS, narrowing the gender gap in education becomes even more vital. It is for this reason that the initiative on girls education led by UNICEF, and announced this morning by the Secretary General is also much needed for an AIDS perspective.
Let me now touch on a controversial issue: all too often it is feared that educating young people about sex and sexual relationships will encourage sexual promiscuity. Fortunately, quite the opposite is true. We have scientific and systematic evidence from all over the world that well structured programmes of sex and relationships education actually lower levels of risk taking. They can moreover delay the onset of sex among those who are not yet sexually active.
But it cant all come from the adults! we still tend to under-estimate what a powerful force for change young people themselves are in their own households, in the lives of their peers,, and in the wider community. Therefore AIDS-related activities by young people themselves, including HIV infected boys and girls, and in youth organizations deserve our fullest support.
Let us all accept that now and for a long time to come, AIDS is an integral part of the "condition humaine." Therefore it is essential that the education system urgently addresses the short and longer term consequences of the AIDS epidemic - on demand and on quality of education, as well as on its human resources management, while at the same time it finally engages with enthusiasm and determination in the struggle against AIDS. In the age of AIDS, teaching life skills is far from being a luxury for well-off countries. It will literally save millions of lives. We don't have a biological vaccine - and we wont have one for a long time - but as the Thai Minister of Health said last year, we do have a social vaccine. Its three components are (i) education about AIDS, how to prevent being infected, and to be compassionate towards those infected, (ii) life skills education for all children, and (iii) 100% condom us.
In addition, for the most affected countries, three priority areas to maximize the impact of education on reducing HIV transmission and its impact. 1. Policies to ensure educational programmes for AIDS orphans and children who head households; 2. Integrating AIDS education into non-formal education programmes through community-based constituencies (as an adjunct to mainstream programmes) ; and 3. Developing innovative education programmes for young girls whose HIV risk and vulnerability are increasing rapidly. It is only through this resolute engagement against AIDS of the education sector as a whole that we will reach another goal set by the international community at the General Assembly Special Session on Population and Development, and by the UN Secretary General in his Millennium Report this year: the reduction of HIV infection rates among 15 to 25 years olds - by 25% within the most affected countries before 2010. This is an ambitious goal indeed but it is possible - as already shown by some countries I mentioned earlier - but time is not on our side. Without containing HIV, we stand no chance of reaching the goals of Education for All. But if in every country we make the kind of broad partnerships work that are discussed here, I am convinced we will succeed.