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Speech for Meeting of Caribbean Youth Leaders: Sexual and Reproductive Health and HIV and AIDS

Speech for Meeting of Caribbean Youth Leaders: Sexual and Reproductive Health and HIV and AIDS

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I thank PANCAP for bringing together this powerful group of young people from all over the Caribbean and for committing itself to training them in the art of advocacy against AIDS. I am also happy that this meeting is taking place in Port-of-Spain so that I could renew my acquaintance with this city of which I have so many fond memories. I feel right at home in this crowd. It may have something to do with the fact that one of my sisters (her name is Tamira) was a CARICOM Youth Ambassador until she demitted office just recently. She served for the maximum 3 years. She was the Vice Dean for Regional Initiatives. Tamira exposed me in the initial instance to the great work of this organisation. I am particularly proud of what you have been doing in the field of healthcare. You’ll understand my bias since I am the Minister of Health (Wellness and the Environment) in my country.

As you could tell, I am a young Minister too. I am probably the youngest Minister of Health in the World. In fact, some of you might be older than me. I am sure that’s why Derek Springer saw it fit to invite me to deliver the feature address at this ceremony. He thought I might be able to inspire you. I hope he is right. Derek Springer when we met seemed thoroughly fascinated by the fact that a young man just out of his twenties could become a serious and focused Minister of Health in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and could be his Chairman at PANCAP. He has in me a Chairman who has a lot of respect for his work ethic and drive and also deference to his seniority. I would like you all to know that in my country I am intent on bringing about a revolution in healthcare and desirable changes in all the other areas of my portfolio.

It is not lost upon me that the audience is not just made up of CARICOM Youth Ambassadors, even though you are all ambassadors in your own right, and an objective of the meeting is to link the CYA with the various other groups represented here. I recognise the presence of representatives of several other important regional organisations that are concerned with the fight against HIV and AIDS. I associate myself with your work for this noble objective. We are with you, I stand in support of you in the execution of your respective missions for regional development and visions for the world. I think that the world would be so much of a better place if we all just learnt to live as one and maintain a healthy respect for diversity and choice within the framework of our common humanity.

I am simply an example of what young people can do. One of the things that I want you to draw from the story of my life is that young people don’t only belong in youth organisations. We can be in the Parliament and in the Cabinet too. We can be prominent members of the judiciary. We can be leaders in the private sector and of course we could be the movers and shakers behind broad-based civil society organisations. Wherever we are, we are often the ones who need to be the driving force for change. We are potentially strong advocates and we must let our voice be heard.

I have a message for you. Let no man despise your youth. Believe in yourself and know that you can do great things. We can help to bring an end to an epidemic that has baffled the best scientists and medical researchers for so many decades and caused an untold amount of grief and suffering. We can do it. In fact, we are the ones who must do it.

In talking about this virus and what we must do to stop it, I want to speak to you straight from the heart. This is a disease that has adversely affected all of our lives in one way or another. In my case, it has claimed the life of a close member of my family. On top of that, I currently take care of a beautiful 5 year old girl whose mother recently died as a result of AIDS (an unnecessary death in this day and age). The girl’s biological father is still alive. He is HIV+ and plays no role in her life. Luckily, the child was born without the virus because of the strides we have made with the elimination of the mother-to-child transmission of HIV (and syphilis). We are getting somewhere.

HIV-AIDS has wrecked havoc in our societies and the world. It has destroyed families. It has robbed our societies of so many of its sons and daughters. It has had a debilitating impact on regional productivity. AIDS has been like an angel of death. So much heartache and pain has come in its wake. Enough is enough. We are tired of the funerals. I said in my message for World AIDS Day last December 1st that it is now time for us to turn the tables, drive the final nail into the coffin and bury this disease.

At the end of the day, we have good reason to be the champions of the cause of an AIDS-free world. We know the Statistics. I am actually a Statistician myself (among other things) by training. We know that the dreaded virus has a disproportionate effect on young people and on certain other vulnerable communities. That’s why we must simply stamp it out.

Thankfully, we have made progress to end HIV-AIDS in recent years, to the point where some people are already looking at a post-AIDS world and a post-AIDS Agenda, it would be an error to believe that the work is already done. We welcome the fact that there has been a 43% reduction in new infections among adults and a 90% reduction in new infections among children between the years 2001 and 2014. There has been improvement in access to treatment and care, but we must not rest on our laurels. In the Caribbean, as of 2014, there are just under 300,000 people living with HIV. 8,800 AIDS-related deaths among adults and just 44% of adults living with HIV accessing case treatment. There are still too many barriers to the access of prevention and care services. Stigma and discrimination is still rife (only way to tackle stigma and discrimination is by facilitating interactions).

This brings me to the specific focus of this meeting. We are here to discuss matters of “Sexual and Reproductive Health and HIV and AIDS” in the Caribbean. You are being prepared to be advocates. In light of this theme, there are some points which need to be explicitly made. Our business is to address the social and cultural drivers of the epidemic. We are concerned with the removal of barriers to the access of sexual and reproductive health information, education and services. This is a matter of human rights. The disagreement between the age of consent and the age at which sexual and reproductive services can be accessed is a standing shame. Obviously it is improper for us as a society to say that someone may choose to have sex at 15 years old (or whatever the age), but could only begin to have access to reproductive health services at 18. This point has been repeatedly made.

Having said this, we have some regard for the overwhelming evidence that early sexual initiation as well as the indulgence in risky sexual practices are main drivers in HIV transmission. It holds to reason that HIV response programmes must better cater to the needs of the young people, and that young people must let their voice be heard on this subject.

We need to acknowledge the fact that there are men who have sex with men (homosexuals), transgender individuals and sex workers in this world, and that these groups of people face special risks in relation to this disease. This is not a moral statement. Nor is it a statement of my personal values. It is simply a statement of fact. They are people too, that we must look out for their welfare as human beings. We must also take care of people living with HIV. We need to fight with all our might against stigma, discrimination and violations of their human rights. This is a duty of our generation.

I am looking forward to you all being forceful and effective advocates. I want to see the force of your reason and logic overcome the resistance to your movement for improving the quality of life for young people and everyone else, and for the extinction of HIV-AIDS. I am sure that will be the case. Stand up and be counted. Let your voice be heard. Be persistent. Let your names be written on the pages of people who through dedicated and sustained advocacy and possibly by other interventions brought an end to HIV-AIDS. You are called because you are strong. We can do it.

We are not powerless to bring about effective change in this world. We can do it. We are not powerless to beat HIV-AIDS into submission. We can do it. We can shape policies in our own image and likeness and ensure that they protect our interests. This is my message to you. Thank you. Let us do it together.

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