But more importantly, I am a citizen of St. Maarten who is sincerely honored- and humbled, to have been asked to speak tonight at the International AIDS Candlelight Memorial's "Promoting Health and Dignity Together" and the I Meditate St. Maarten's "Celebrating Humanity" co-event.
Both themes have a great deal of personal and professional significance to me, and I, like the many that have gathered here tonight, come here with an understanding that among the many roles that I have in my life, that of a healthy, respectful and compassionate citizen of this community is of no less value or importance.
This is the 29th year of the Candlelight Memorial- the first ever being in 1983. I was 13 years old, yet I vividly remember those days- as I am sure many of you here tonight do as well. There was an incredible amount of fear, prejudice, blame, and ignorance surrounding this mysterious deadly disease.
For those of you that are part of the younger generation, those that never lived in a world without HIV/AIDS- I can tell you it was a frightening time- there was no definitive answer as to where the virus came from and how the disease was transmitted.
We live in a very different world now- one that forces every man and woman to confront the fact that irresponsible choices can easily be fatal ones. In 1983, 4 young men in San Francisco, all inflicted with AIDS, no course of therapy and less than a year to live, decided to coordinate a small vigil with a banner that said "Fighting for our lives". As thousands joined in, an international movement was created that would inspire millions of people living with HIV/AIDS to bring the reality of this issue- along with all its misconceptions, into mainstream civil society.
As St. Maarteners, we should be proud to be citizens of one of 115 countries that participate in this extraordinary global memorial. My sincerest gratitude to H.O.P.E. and the St. Maarten AIDS foundation for organizing this event and maintaining St. Maarten's role as an active international force in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Stakeholders here in St. Maarten have embraced and enforced global initiatives such as the UNAIDS Strategy Getting to Zero: Zero AIDS related deaths, Zero new HIV infections, and ZERO Stigma and Discrimination. I applaud the many NGOs here in St. Maarten that work tirelessly in the efforts of prevention and education. I encourage these organizations to continue to synchronize their efforts in order to maximize the impact of our human and financial resources.
34 million people are living with HIV. Living. Gone are the days when HIV was considered a death sentence. Through advances in medicine and social consciousness, the virus is no longer in control. People are.
Great strides have been made in the industrialized world to dramatically improve the quality of life of people living with HIV/AIDS; millions are living full, long productive lives; however, collectively the battle is far from over.
As the virus continues to ravish the world's most vulnerable populations, primarily in Sub-Sahara Africa, the development world mobilizes its resources to move towards an HIV-free world. This begs the question about our role.
Yours. Mine. Ours.
Think about it.
What are the things we must do, must CHANGE, to make an impact? I would argue that the answer is in front of each and every one of us- and it is a different one for every person.
For me, as I get older, I have come to realize that a kind, compassionate, loving society must be in place to provide a soft place to land when life deals painful blows- blows, such as unemployment, loss of a loved one, or inflictions such as HIV/AIDS.
We can be angry at others, upset with how unfair life can be, and stressed about family problems. But if we are to be members of such a society- one that is gentle, compassionate, and non judgmental, we must work as individuals to find peace within ourselves and respect for those around us. A life that is lived differently than another's does not in any way change its intrinsic worth.
In today's hectic world, people seem to be moving in two destructive directions. One is the path of violent struggle and confrontation, and the other is that of self-indulgence. What unites these two extremes is a shared disregard for human dignity: the former violates the dignity of other people, the latter undermines one's own dignity.
So tonight, as we promote Health and Dignity and celebrate humanity, I have asked myself the difficult questions- am I bringing dignity to my own life? Am I helping those in need? Am I making healthy choices for myself and encouraging the same in those around me?
We can do our part to stop the spread of HIV, as well as honor those who have lost their lives to AIDS, by making responsible, personal choices. That part IS in our hands. But for the things in life that are NOT- we have to ask ourselves- if we don't have a sense of caring, as a community - what do we really have?