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Press Release
Civil Society Essential to Fighting AIDS, UNAIDS Says

October 9, 2000

Cotonou, Benin, October 9, 2000 -- Civil society is pivotal to the AIDS response and extensive participation on every front is critical to rolling back the epidemic, said Dr Peter Piot, Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

"No sector of society remains untouched by HIV and AIDS," Dr Piot told a special seminar on AIDS and civil society today, "so the broadest possible response is needed. Partnerships are our pathway in this effort -- whether with the business sector, non-governmental organizations, religious groups, service clubs, sports associations and all other interested parties." The call for collaboration comes within the framework of the International Partnership Against AIDS in Africa, a coalition made up of African governments, the United Nations, donors, and the private and community sectors working under the leadership of African countries.

Key elements of the AIDS epidemic are its social and political dimensions, and African thinkers at the seminar will reflect upon how to best mobilize African intellectual resources to improve the response to AIDS. The meeting will try to define the role of civil society in response to the epidemic and will consider the specific situation of African women confronted with HIV and AIDS, in an effort to bring a gender perspective into the AIDS debate. Other issues to be addressed include human rights, the role of African intellectuals, religious and political aspects of HIV/AIDS, community involvement, and the importance of leadership.

"My greatest hope is that we can truly initiate a partnership at the national level," said Solange Kouo Epa, head of the United Nations Theme Group on HIV/AIDS in Benin, an inter-agency working group on AIDS. "There is already great awareness in the country of the issues surrounding HIV/AIDS, and we have worked hard to achieve this. The government has moved forward significantly, and now it is time to take action on a broader front across all of civil society."

The government of Benin has already demonstrated its political engagement in coming to grips with the epidemic. Recently, the Council of Ministers put AIDS on its agenda and committed to allocating debt relief funds to the AIDS response. The UN Theme Group on HIV/AIDS has also addressed the National Assembly on the issue.

Other groups in Benin are now gearing up to collaborate on AIDS, including service associations and bankers, who have indicated their willingness to take action on the epidemic.

A key speech at the seminar, "Africa in the 21st century," will be given by Professor Albert Tevoedjre, a former senior official of the International Labour Organization in Geneva and former government minister in Benin. Prof Tevoedjre is also founder of the Pan-African Social Prospects Centre, the Cotonou-based think tank on African social and political issues organizing the seminar. The gathering, which is taking place in Cotonou on 9-10 October, is entitled "Greatest Challenge at the Beginning of the Third Millenium: Socio-Political Dimensions of the AIDS epidemic in Africa" and is being held within the framework of the International Partnership Against AIDS in Africa. Some 30 high-level participants from across Africa are expected to attend, representing governments, the United Nations system, civil society and the private sector.

Benin, on the West coast of Africa, has a population of 5.7 million of which 2.45% is living with HIV, up from 0.32% in 1990. According to the latest figures, the epidemic is spreading quickly to rural areas and Dr. Piot warns there is little room for complacency.

Worldwide, 34.3 million people are now living with HIV or AIDS, 24.5 million of them in sub-Saharan Africa. Just last year, 2.8 million people died of AIDS, the highest death rate in any single year since the start of the epidemic.

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