SPEECH BY MR BRENTON WONG
These are grim times we live in. In the wake of 9/11, a Pandora's Box of devastating terror and fear was unleashed. Now confronted with SARS, a further pall has been cast on us all. But before all this, there was AIDS.
Both these diseases are known by acronyms - SARS stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome; AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. SARS manifests quickly - the incubation period can be from 2 to 10 days; a person with HIV can remain healthy for many years and only progressively manifest signs of deterioration much later. The government's response to the threat of SARS has been like the manifestation of disease - swift and forceful; the response to AIDS has also been like the progress of the disease itself, slow and measured.
As I write this speech, there are over 4,000 probable SARS cases worldwide with a confirmed death toll of nearly 300; The UN Joint Program on HIV/AIDS, UNAIDS, estimates 42 million people infected worldwide with HIV and over 3 million people have died from AIDS-related causes until the end of 2002.
I am writing about two infectious diseases. Yet the responses have been starkly different. There has been much support in the fight against SARS, while stigma still forms a strong and invisible barrier that impedes the response to the fight against HIV/AIDS.
In Singapore, there are over 200 SARS cases reported, with a death toll of about 18, as of the time of writing. Until October 2002, over 1,600 Singaporeans have been infected with HIV and by now, probably more than 2,000... and we count more than 600 people dead because of it. Is SARS a threat? Yes. Is AIDS a threat? Yes - but we don't seem to be responding to it appropriately.
The Executive Director of UNAIDS, Dr Peter Piot said, "The answers are political. They are about power and priorities." He was referring to a key ingredient in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Combating any disease is a matter of will and commitment. We have the will and commitment to fight SARS, but sadly, we do not have enough of it to fight HIV/AIDS.
Against this backdrop, it is with profound sadness that I attend each Candlelight Memorial, knowing more could have and should have been done. Shame and fear are still attached to the disease, and because of this, people who have passed away from AIDS-related causes die forgotten, or worse - shunned. They end up as faceless numbers in a statistical report.
That is why we have this event - to remember them, for they had families, they lived lives, and had hopes and dreams like you or I.
Thank you all for coming to this Candlelight Memorial. As we silently remember friends and loved ones who have passed on, I want each and every one of you to silently affirm your commitment to fight this disease - for it still continues to infect about 200 Singaporeans each year. This event also shows support with those still living with HIV, and I hope we can learn from our experience with SARS in mobilizing our community to fight against another disease that is a threat to us all.
I would like to thank the organizing committee for this event, both past and present, for you have shown your commitment as well as recognised the importance of awareness-raising to the community-at-large.
SPEECH BY GUEST OF HONOUR MS BRAEMA MATHI
Ladies and gentlemen, colleagues and friends,
Tonight we are gathered here to observe the Singapore AIDS Candlelight Memorial 2003. AIDS threatens our very raison d'Étre; our ability to live and our instinct to create life. Little wonder, therefore, that HIV and AIDS are so feared.
By and large, most men, however poor, can choose when, with whom and with what protection if any, to have sex. Most women cannot. Women's access to care and support for HIV/AIDS is much delayed and limited, if it arrives at all. Family resources nearly always devoted to caring for the males. Women, even when infected, are providing all the care.
HIV/AIDS has emerged as a disease for more than two decades. It has since infected 42 million worldwide. If current trends persist, by 2020 AIDS could claim up to 100 million lives worldwide, putting it on track to be the worst epidemic in human history.
But, HIV is preventable, and information can help stem the spread of this disease. Medications are helping many people living with HIV/AIDS to live longer and healthier lives, and to reduce the number of deaths resulting from AIDS. There is still no cure and although the number of new infections occurring annually in Singapore decreased in the last decade, prevention is still the best means of stopping the spread of the disease.
Stigma and discrimination in relation to HIV/AIDS are much stronger against women who risk violence, abandonment, neglect (of health and material needs), destitution, ostracism from family and community. Furthermore, women, are often blamed for spread of diseases, always seen as the "vector" even though the majority have been infected by only partner/husband.
Naturally, the question arises: Why must the response be gender-based? I look at it in the following perspectives: Because unequal gender, social, economic, and power relations are driving the epidemic to greater heights; because women are disproportionately affected by the epidemic, they are highly vulnerable to infection; and because gender differences in pathology show that clinical management has been for too long based on research undertaken on men. Research must also be tailored to women's particular symptomatology, disease progression, HIV related illnesses, etc.
"Live and Let Live" is the slogan of this year's World AIDS Campaign, which also focuses on eliminating stigma and discrimination. This evening, we join people in over 300 cities, in 43 countries, in the six continents around the world who are observing the same event, for tonight is also the International AIDS Candlelight Memorial 2003.
This Candlelight Memorial represents four important things: Tonight we remember the people far and near who have lost the fight against AIDS and who have paid the price with their lives. Tonight we show support for those living with HIV and AIDS. Tonight, we raise awareness of contracting HIV and AIDS and finally, tonight we pay tribute to all the women who have battled against HIV/AIDS.
Women's position in society has been lower than that of men's by tradition. With the increase of female HIV/AIDS patients, the situation has certainly not improved. On the contrary, such stigma and prejudice towards women will continue to escalate. Let our focus on women in this year's AIDS Candlelight Memorial be the starting point to fight discrimination towards HIV/AIDS persons, more so against female HIV/AIDS persons.
Action for AIDS has taken the first step to provide continuous education on the disease and to address the stigma prevalent.
If we can do it for SARS, we can also do it for AIDS. Let us now join hands to create a society more aware, sensitive, and tolerant towards a disease which has seen only isolation and contempt.
SPEECH BY SISTER THERESA SEOW
Good Evening Ladies and Gentlemen,
The focus of tonight's Candlelight Memorial being women & HIV, we need recognise that a large number of women account for the growing proportion of new adult/adolescence HIV/AIDS cases. In this regard, we need to look at certain prevalence in our society: attitudes, behaviours and norms.
Women are viewed primarily as caregivers. They are responsible for the physical care and well being of all family members. Care is only one of the many productive and reproductive activities of women, which include farming, food preparation, collection of firewood and water, childcare, cleaning, etc.
Care is provided free but has a hidden cost! During illness, women's productive labour is lost; this has serious impact on long-term wellbeing of the household and on the woman herself. Care doesn't end with death of husband a child or a sister. Care of orphans lies with grandmothers and aunts.
Thus by and large women and care giving become synonymous and when the woman herself is taken ill we can quite imagine her condition. I am not saying this is the cause of the increasing number of women with HIV AIDS but what I am saying is this is a situation to reckon with when we talk about the position of women in society and their well being. So how do we address it?
There is a need to raise awareness among more men and increase their participation and efforts to support and protect women. They should be educated to be concerned not only of their own sexual health but of their partners' too. Awareness about their own risk-taking behaviours and interventions aimed at men will certainly bring about constructive changes.
At the same time, women themselves must be responsible and aware that they are at equal risk.
This becomes more paramount as there is as yet no drug that can cure the disease nor is there any vaccine for its prevention. Singapore believes education and prevention programmes remain the keys to reducing HIV transmission. The cooperation of the public, private, and people sectors, will be vital in reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Singapore must come together as a community to help those suffering from AIDS as well as to actively find ways to contain the spread of AIDS.
It is in this spirit that respective religious organisations and committee pursue avenues to nurture a sense of togetherness in Singapore; a community that understands, empathises and shares without prejudice.
We are here to remember lives lost and give hope and meaning to people living with AIDS. Through the candle we hold, we remember with love those that have left us.
But, before a cure is found let us help to enlighten the lives of those living with AIDS by looking at us. Just like us, a person with AIDS wants to lead a productive life at work; she will also want to enjoy a healthy life with the appropriate medication and treatment; and want to experience a life of quality privately and socially without discrimination
The various religions also have a role to play. Based on the principles of compassion and loving kindness, they strive to promote equality, understanding, respect and self-esteem amongst everyone alike, regardless whether he has AIDS or other diseases.
We must constantly move to drain away the darkness that envelops those suffering with AIDS and AIDS itself.
What people see and what people hear impact them directly. Visibility matters. They leave a lasting impression. We thus need to see the necessity for women to come forth and be their own advocates for research and funding for treatment and to develop programmes targeted at women and family needs. We should not let this burden of silence push us backwards but recognise it as a need to let voices be heard. It is only when women meet other women and come together collectively can the stigma be decreased and ultimately eliminated.
With our focus being "Women and HIV" this evening, we talked to some who have experienced HIV/AIDS as close as it can get. They have seen what it means to be HIV + and this is what they have to share with us:
We spoke to Angela, 32, an HIV patient. These are some things which seemed to echo loud and clear from what she said..."I realized I was HIV + when I went for my medical test, a prerequisite for my new job. It only seemed like yesterday, and not four years ago, since then, nothing much has changed in the attitudes of people I know or knew.
I was unemployed for a long time, and did not know which door to knock on as all seemed to shut on my face.
I am currently doing part time jobs, as these don't require me to undergo the humiliating medical tests and mask the truth. When I talk to strangers at times about my HIV status, I think I feel them watching me and thinking only about how I was infected, as that is the most important thing they want to know. I don't want pity for what I have but I can only hope that society accepts me for who I am."
Can reluctance to speak out publicly still be
a function of how women continue to view
themselves as sexual beings? Does not this speak
volumes about the attitudes present in society?
We spoke to Linda, 28 years of age, married
for five years, who recently discovered that her
husband had contracted HIV while he was on a
Wondering about the way the condition is seen
in society today we moved on to speak to Amina a
19 year old just into college. "My brother
tested HIV+. He was so excited to join National
Service with all his friends, only to have all
his dreams shattered when he appeared for the
first medical test. Those were difficult times
for us. Most of his friends left him but for
just a few, who were there for him.
Psychologically it affected him a lot. Such a
chirpy out going young man became lonely and
depressed. With time his condition became worse
and medical expenses rose. We had to sell our
apartment and I started working part time. At
the same time we as a family had to give him a
lot of support emotionally so that he would not
feel neglected or guilty for the condition of
the family. This is an illness, which not only
affects the person living with it but all the
people around him. In that respect it is like
any other illness. As for the patient, he is
shaken up psychologically as well as physically.
At the same time it is not only difficult to
live with a person you love so much, who has
AIDS, but it is even more difficult to watch him
die. I lost my brother last year to AIDS."
Mrs. Kumar, mother of two children, one of whom is infected says, "Sometimes I want to tell the world my story so that no other mother ever has to feel like I do." But she doesn't, because the reactions she has gotten thus far from family and others tell her only that she is an infected mother who gave her child a disease. "None wants to listen to me. I have to live with my own condition as that of my child's. My younger son is ok but I feel I have neglected him, as I could not breast-feed him for fear of infecting him too. I don't know whether I can answer his questions when he grows up or even whether I will be there to answer his questions...my neighbour Mrs Raja has been helping in many ways to ease the financial burdens. At the same time she comes and spends a lot of time with the children and me to help me cope. As it is medical expenses are so high and to add to my plight I was recently retrenched and don't know how I can get the money to buy our medicines once my savings are over. There are no subsidies available for this illness. I can only hope things will change soon. In a society that sees women as caregivers who should not be the ones falling ill I can only call to other mothers to understand my position and conditions of life and living."