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I am glad that we have taken time off the Bo School Centenary celebrations to pay some attention on what I consider to be a serious national/global problem and that is the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

It is believed that in 2002, 45,000 Sierra Leoneans were living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Today it is estimated that this figure has risen to 75,000. It is rising because, in spite of the number of deaths and infections, many among us continue to treat HIV/AIDS as someone else's problem. HIV/AIDS is not someone else's problem. It is our PEOPLES problem, YOUR problem, and my problem because in this war against this deadly disease, there are only two kinds of people. Those infected with the virus and those affected by it. You and I are affected because we have a responsibility to resolve any problem that leads to death or suffering or deprivation of our people.

HIV/AIDS is a potential challenge that seems to threaten our efforts at transforming our country from conflict to development. It therefore requires all sectors of our society to rally together our strengths and capabilities in a common struggle to reverse the spread of HIV infection and contain the impact of AIDS in our society.

In the year 2000, I joined other leaders of the rest of the world at the United Nations General Assembly at the historic Millennium Summit in which we adopted an ambitious set of eight goals, popularly known as the Millennium Development Goals to be achieved by the Year 2015. One of these goals is combating HIV/AIDS. The others are combating Tuberculosis, Malaria and other diseases. It is realistic, practical and necessary for us to achieve these goals by the target dates that have been agreed upon because this action will help safe guard and transform the lives of our people.

Similarly, in June 2001, at a Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on HIV/AIDS, we also made a special commitment to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS and to mitigate its impact in the world. This is an indication of the commitment of world leaders to rid the world of this menace.

The logical question that I believe should follow from this background is "what can we do together, that is Paramount Chiefs and the Government in order to realize our common objective?" Based on my personal experience in managing situations of this nature and borrowing from experience of other countries, I believe we should pursue the following:-

1. We have to mobilize the necessary resources, including funding to meet the cost of the commitments that we cannot meet locally. In this connection I am pleased to inform you that we as a Government have been able to obtain a loan of US $15 Million from the World Bank to meet that of the local cost of combating the pandemic.
2. The next action on our part locally is to sensitize our people particularly with regard to the following"
a. Stigmatization: people pointing fingers at those who are infected and trying to isolate them from the rest of the community. This will have a serious psychological impact on the population which in turn will force people into denial or the refusal to come forward for testing and treatment. This is particularly important when one considers the growing percentage of our population that is infected by the disease.
b. We must be frank in advising our compatriots including those that have not yet been infected to engage only in safe sex, which is the use of precautionary methods such as condoms or better still, sticking with one partner or regular partners in the case of polygamous marriages. Where one finds it difficult to obey these simple rules I advise that people go through regular testing which can be provided by hospitals free of cost.

3. We must examine some of our cultural beliefs, customs and traditional practices that are within our native law and custom, to determine the effect they have on the prevalence of HIV/AIDS. Some of these include:

    * Gender superiority of men over women which leads to violence against women
* Inheritance of widows by the relatives of the dead husband
* Non discussion of sexuality in open fora
* Beliefs in witchcraft
* Non discussion of sexual matters between parents and children
* Early marriage
* Secret Societies

These are just a few cultural beliefs and traditional practices which influence the spread of HIV/AIDS. You as traditional leaders because of the respect that you command among your communities and direct access that you have to the grassroots people in our country, should take the lead in explaining the implications of these practices and beliefs to our people. You have the ability to break the silence amongst our people and fight the stigmatization that is still associated with HIV/AIDS.

As traditional leaders, you are the custodian of culture, information and you can equip your community members with skills on how to protect themselves.

4. Another issue of concern is the orphaned children, who have no one to care for them. The upbringing of children in our society is the responsibility of the parents and the community as a whole. Due to the civil war and the spread of HIV/AIDS, the numbers of orphans have increased. You should provide leadership to make sure that the children are taken care of. This includes; protecting their human rights, making sure they have enough food to eat; go to school, and have shelter over their heads.

We are pleased that today in the fight against this pandemic, our traditional leaders, the Paramount Chiefs have joined us to halt the spread in our country. The "National Council of Paramount Chiefs/Traditional leaders' HIV/AIDS Initiative-Sierra Leone," is one of the very important structures in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

This Initiative will cost Government over One Billion Leones, which when translated into Dollars is US$552,000. Apart from posters, T-Shirts and Condoms that have already been provided, each Paramount Chief in the Provinces and Tribal Head in Western Area will receive a cheque of Le7,290,000 to sensitize their community on HIV/AIDS and to support groups for community mobilization and HIV/AIDS prevention activities.

Paramount Chiefs in the Eastern Region will receive the same amount two weeks from now. Today, as a way of launching this nationwide programme and as a demonstration of my personal commitment to this exercise, I will be symbolically distributing a few cheques to you the Paramount Chiefs. I have been informed that most these monies have either been already lodged in your Chiefdom Bank Accounts or are in the process of being lodged. I admonish you to use these monies for their intended purpose.

I look forward to your cooperation in this very important national matter as leaders of our people. It concerns their well being. A good Paramount Chief is one that cares for the welfare and well being of his people. This exercise also concerns the entire nation as it has a direct impact on our effort to transform our country from the post-conflict situation created by the war, to ensuring Food Security, Peace and National Development.

It now gives me great pleasure to launch the "National Council of Paramount Chiefs/Traditional leaders' HIV/AIDS Initiative-Sierra Leone" and to symbolically distribute these few cheques