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Tuesday, 30 November 2004
Page: 95

Senator STEPHENS (7:01 PM) —I am sure that we are all aware here in this chamber that tomorrow, 1 December, is World AIDS Day. As a global epidemic, Human Immunodeficiency Virus-Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, HIV-AIDS, takes its place with the bubonic plague of the Middle Ages for the millions of lives that it has claimed. The fact that 22 million people have died of AIDS so far but over 36 million are infected means that the worst is yet to come. The AIDS pandemic is distinctive among lethal epidemics in that most of the lives it takes are of adults from 20 to 40 years of age. In Africa the vast majority of people in this age group are parents, so HIV-AIDS has been responsible for deteriorating national and household income, the unravelling of the social safety net of the extended family, and the creation of millions of orphans.

Last Friday night I attended a fundraising dinner held by a young woman in the nearby country town of Goulburn. It was a great night, well patronised by the local community. Kenyan dancers took us into another world; African art and artefacts drew us all into the competitive fun of a private auction; and there were some serious words spoken by local people and by the Kenyan High Commissioner, Mr Lanyasunya. It was the sort of fundraiser that most people in this chamber have attended to support the work of their constituents. But what made this particular event remarkable was its inspirational organiser, Jacinta Conroy.

Jacinta is a lively, fun-loving 24-year-old. She has lived in Goulburn all her life. She plays in the local band, teaches violin to kids of all ages, and she has a big heart. If you saw her walking down the street you would not think there was anything exceptional about her. You would see a fine-looking, poised young woman quietly going about her business. But Jacinta Conroy is exceptional. No, she does not have AIDS: she has a social conscience and the conviction and courage to do something to make the world a better place. The purpose of the function she organised on Friday was a dinner to raise money for children suffering from or affected by AIDS in Kenya. Very commendable, I imagine you thinking. But Jacinta's commitment does not stop with collecting money and sending it off to Africa. In fact she is going to take it with her to the small community of Mutumbu where she is going to put her energy, talent and compassion to work in an effort to help the children in orphanages and community schools there. She plans to use the skills of local musicians to establish music programs and she will also be travelling around the country studying programs put in place by World Youth International.

Why Kenya? HIV-AIDS is a national disaster for the people of Kenya, children and adults alike. Kenya is estimated to have the ninth highest prevalence of HIV in the world with about 14 per cent of the adult population infected. Projections indicate that by 2005 there will be about 820 deaths per day from AIDS in Kenya. There are an estimated one million orphans in that country, and the millions of new infections each year among young adults guarantee that high rates of orphaning will continue for years to come. The Census Bureau estimates that there are currently about 15 million children under 15 who have lost at least one parent to AIDS in Africa and that by 2010 this number will be at least 28 million. By comparison, research suggests that in most developing countries about two per cent of children under 15 years were orphans before the era of AIDS.

In Kenya AIDS affects many more children than just orphans. For each child who has lost a parent to AIDS there are one or two children of school age who are caring for an ill parent, acting as breadwinners for the household, or otherwise unable to attend school because of AIDS. Children who are not orphaned are also affected when orphans are brought into their homes or, obviously, when they themselves are infected.

As we all know, HIV-AIDS is the subject of considerable global attention in the international press and in international policy making as well as in the aid community. In these forums it is common to depict and analyse HIV-AIDS as an economic, social and development catastrophe. What is less understood is that is that it is a human rights crisis underlining the importance of combating discrimination against HIV-infected persons. As HIV-AIDS in Africa has become a crisis of historic proportions, human rights law including law on the rights of children should inform important public health policy options such as large-scale mandatory testing. Work from UN bodies and others on AIDS and human rights has emphasised that the engine of the epidemic in many parts of the world is sexual violence and subordination of women and girls and recommends that AIDS policy and law must include measures that protect the rights of women. The UN International Development Fund for Women, UNIFEM, echoes the work of many social scientists in asserting that the epidemic `would not have reached such vast proportions' if women in Africa and around the world were able to refuse unwanted and unprotected sex.

Delegates from 45 countries recently endorsed a report made to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women that concluded:

Women's and girls' relative lack of power over their bodies and their sexual lives, which is supported and reinforced by their social and economic inequality, makes them more vulnerable in contracting and living with HIV/AIDS.

On another human rights front, a vocal worldwide civil society movement is currently promoting the right of persons living with AIDS in developing countries to have access to the same antiretroviral drugs that are widely used in wealthy, developed countries. These human rights analyses of HIV-AIDS, essential and ongoing, have not for the most part focused on children affected by AIDS and the ways in which the epidemic threatens children's human rights. The plight of children orphaned by AIDS has been the subject of many journalistic accounts and program documents, but there have been few studies of legal and policy protections of children's rights related to HIV-AIDS. Picture the life of a girl whose parents have died of AIDS: she goes to live with an aunt, who dies of AIDS, and is then cared for by grandparents, who die of old age. Ask yourself: how vulnerable is this child? How likely is she to contract AIDS herself? And who is looking after her human rights?

Children have the right to survival; physical, social and cultural development; health; and education. These rights are guaranteed under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, especially article 24, and the African Charters on Human and Peoples' Rights and on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, all of which Kenya ratified. But the family based and community-level support and protection that orphans and other vulnerable children have traditionally had recourse to is unravelling in Kenya and other AIDS affected countries. So who will fight to protect their rights? While the contribution of people like Jacinta Conroy is invaluable, it is vital that governments also take measures to ensure protection of the rights of children affected by HIV-AIDS. Because HIV-AIDS so often impoverishes and stigmatises the children it affects and claims the lives of so many in their extended family, AIDS-affected children face many obstacles to staying in school and thus fulfilling their right to education. They are further disadvantaged in many ways by the unscrupulous and unlawful appropriation of property that they are entitled to inherit from their parents, and in Kenya they are rarely able to take legal action to protect their inheritance rights.

These problems are compounded in Kenya by apparently poor access for children and young adults to appropriate and clear information about HIV-AIDS, which puts children at risk of being unable to protect themselves from HIV transmission. While Kenya needs to strengthen protections of the rights of AIDS affected children, it is far from alone in this responsibility. At the fundraising auction I attended, the High Commissioner for Kenya, Mr John Lanyasunya, spoke of the approach to AIDS taken by Uganda, Kenya's neighbour to the west. Here government leaders recognised as early as the mid-1980s the threat of HIV-AIDS and acted to stop it. In 1986, Uganda became the first country in Africa to collaborate with the World Health Organisation Global Program on AIDS to create an intersectoral national AIDS control program. The successes in reducing the rates of transmission in Uganda are most often attributed to the government's leadership and that is where our support can make a difference: Australia should encourage and support the Kenyan government's efforts to ensure that AIDS-affected children are protected from abuse, neglect, disinheritance, hazardous labour and premature withdrawal from school. And on World AIDS day we should all be speaking out for that.