The month of December is full of noteworthy commemorative events. December 1 is World AIDS Day. On this occasion, the African Jesuit AIDS Network (full disclosure: AJAN is an organization whose early steps I helped establish and manage) released a statement which said in part:
AIDS continues to be the leading cause of death in the continent [Africa], home to 22 million HIV-positive or two-thirds of the global total of 33 million. In the developing world, although improved access to antiretroviral therapy means that fewer people are dying, treatment is reaching less than one-third of those eligible. The number of AIDS orphans has swollen and their myriad needs are scarcely being met. Millions in Africa are still mired in deprivation and ignorance that put them at high risk of contracting HIV. As much dedication as ever is needed to turn the tide against the pandemic. Yet why dedicate energy, resources and expertise to what seems one problem among so many?
Indeed why bother, when the next commemorative event, International Slavery Abolition Day, falls on December 2? From the National Railroad Underground Freedom Center, we learn that:
The United Nations established the day in 1949 to recognize ongoing efforts to abolish all forms of slavery throughout the world. While those efforts are undoubtedly worthwhile, the inescapable reality is that there are more people living as slaves today than at any time in history. Most of the estimated 27 million victims are women and children.
I take away the following from these back-to-back commemorations:
- The number of slaves around the world almost equals the number of people living with HIV and AIDS.
- Yet HIV and AIDS have gained far higher visibility since the transmission of the deadly virus took the world by storm in the early 1980s.
- Together these numbers may overwhelm even the most well-meaning person who wishes to live in a world where these societal ills no longer hold sway over so many lives.
The learned leaders of the United Nations have not done us a great favor with their habit of designating commemorative dates that, although meaningful, tend to highlight the weakness of the world body rather than its strength and potential. A quick look at the web sites maintained by the Human Rights Council and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights indicates that these institutions have acknowledged neither of these two dates, although both issues are core human rights issues. The continuing spread of HIV and AIDS in Africa is closely connected to the lower standings of women and girls throughout the continent. The absence of basic freedoms allows government leaders ample room to ignore the needs of common folks. Slavery exists for the same reasons. The only viable explanation might be that International Human Rights Day which falls on December 10 may provide another grand opportunity to review all the ills that plague this world. Still it’s a poor excuse.
One might lean towards cynicism when one looks at the results achieved when tackling such issues as HIV and AIDS, slavery, basic health care, and access to food and water. Yet one must continue to bear in mind that no meaningful results are achieved without serious efforts guided by strategies and tactics that are rooted in comprehensive analyses. Even when the number of advocates is small. Even when you have to spend time informing and educating friends while dealing with foes. Even when they disagree and believe that you are wasting time. Even when times are troubling economically and politically. Eventually incremental steps lead to qualitative change. Friends and strangers join the cause. A movement grows. Hope brings change. Change happens.
I am inspired by the willingness of people to join the movement to end slavery in Haiti by signing onto a petition that has not only reached its target goal of 1,000 signatures, but is still attracting signatures the world over. I am also inspired and awed by young people’s grasp of this matter. In parting, allow me to share with you the following clip which a young Haitian-American posted on YouTube.
With them and through them, the end of slavery in Haiti is in sight.