During one of the radio programmes conducted on Fiji radio, there was a discussion on HIV and AIDS. The leader of the Fiji Nationalist party said that if they win the elections, they will put HIV positive people on an island. Challenging that view, candidate Bernadette Rounds-Ganilau calmly explained the need for providing care, compassion and support for HIV positive people rather than exclusion, stigmatisation and discrimination. "That's why we want to put them on an island so we can show them compassion" the nationalist leader replied.
For "politicians" (and decision makers) to espouse putting HIV positive people on an island ...where we can show them love and compassion... is an indictment on the ...awareness... programmes that have been conducted over the years by the UN, the SPC and at the national level, the Ministries of Health and all those working on HIV. Where have we gone wrong?
Clearly we who have been working on HIV for so many years have failed in getting people to understand the limitations of testing and the harm that is caused by stigmatisation and discrimination against people who have tested HIV positive.
The election process provides us with an opportunity to promote a better understanding of the issues. To question political candidates on their policies and proposed activities if they are going win a seat in the elections.
Culture as an excuse
Question those who use culture as an excuse to remain silent on "sensitive" topics such as sex, women's rights, hypocracy, the needs of the marginalised etc and so on. It has been said that Culture is an agreement between a group of people, nothing more, nothing less. And, it is usually those who benefit from maintaining the status quo that use culture as an excuse. Think about the cost to people's lives and the nation of NOT talking about certain issues, of unquestioningly accepting what we are told. Maybe it is time to change some parts of our culture. And we should try and do it in a peaceful respectful way.
The vision is that ALL political parties commit themselves to policies and programmes that will help to minimise HIV infection, rather than programmes that will fuel the spread of the virus. Pacific Island countries need policies and actions that will improve the lot of marginalised groups, not those which will further feather the nests of the already wealthy and powerful elite.
Some of the Messages and Lessons Learnt that need to be better understood:
1. The most effective way of preventing the spread of HIV is to protect the rights of the marginalised groups. These include battered disempowered uneducated and economically dependent women; the ignorant; the unemployed homeless youth; children who are not being cared for; sex workers; sexual minorities etc and so on. This means that ALL political parties should be committed to providing people's basic human rights, regardless of colour, creed, religion or sexual orientation - the right to education (including sex education), the right to available, affordable health services including condoms; the right to shelter, food, running water; the right to a safe environment etc. And they should be committed to improving women's, children's and the rights of the marginalised.
2. About ninety percent of HIV-positive people don...t know that they have the virus so is it a wise use of resources to concentrate on developing a law to prosecute those 10 percent who might be ...willfully... transmitting the virus, rather than doing more to help the 90 percent who are ...lovingly... spreading the virus to get tested so that they know their HIV status;
3. Leave judgments to God and practice your Christian principles of love, care and compassion. (This applies to most of the major religions in the
Pacific) In our traditional Pacific societies, if people were to be judged, it was on the basis of whether they were kind to their parents and family,
met their obligations to their extended family and the community etc. If you are going to judge, this was the criteria used ... not what two consenting adults decide to do in private to show their sexual feelings to each other.
4. Rather than associating/ identifying AIDS with certain groups of people (eg. homosexuals, intravenous drug users, sex workers, sailors etc), we should focus on the exact specific sexual acts that put people at risk. Label Bottles not People.
Ideas, feedback, questions would be welcomed.
UNAIDS APLF Sub Regional Coordinator
Suva, Fiji Islands
svete [at] unicef [dot] org
Leadership is about questioning the status quo, about challenging the
process, and about innovation. It is about seeing over the horizon,
visualizing the final destination, and making something happen. It is about
changing the way things are.