Remarks: Ambassador Rebecca Gonzales at the PEPFAR Champions Documentary Premiere, Maseru; September 26, 2019

Please allow me to begin today by first paying my respects to:

His Majesty King Letsie III

Her Majesty Queen ‘Masenate Mohato Seeiso

The Right Honorable the Prime Minister

The Honorable President of the Senate

The Honorable Speaker of the National Assembly

Her Ladyship the Acting Chief Justice

The Honorable Deputy Prime Minister

Honorable Members of his Majesty’s Cabinet, especially the Minister of Health, who is in New York this week at the United Nations General Assembly

Senior Government Officials

Civil Society Organizations and PEPFAR Lesotho Implementing Partners

Members of the Media

Distinguished Guests, especially our 10 champions

Ladies and Gentlemen

I am personally honored to be here today as we recognize over a decade of the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) support to help reverse the HIV/AIDS burden in Lesotho. What makes this day particularly special is that we gather to celebrate, honor, and thank ten Basotho individuals who embody the work PEPFAR is doing in the Mountain Kingdom. The last time I saw this group of incredible inspiring people, we were all together at my residence for America’s 243rd Independence Day celebration.   (To the Champions) It was important to me to invite you to my home to show them my gratitude for their courage and commitment. I am so happy to be with you all again and to see the positive reaction to your stories. To you, I want to say, thank you on behalf of the entire PEPFAR team and all our partners.

The United States, through PEPFAR, remains committed to help Lesotho during this important period when we have set our sights on achieving HIV/AIDS Epidemic Control. At this moment, we are pushing forward with incredible urgency to reach this goal by 2020. We measure our progress in running this race by the UNAIDS 90-90-90 targets.  Data show we have made great strides toward meeting these targets, but we are not quite there yet.

Since I arrived in Lesotho, I have visited PEPFAR sites in all ten districts.  In addition to commemorating 10 years of PEPFAR, I wanted to see how our U.S. government contributions are doing. I am impressed with the impact we have achieved together with our implementing partners and the Ministry of Health. Through these visits and conversations with our partners, I learned that we still have issues to address, like maintaining and supplying these U.S.-built clinics and ensuring that Basotho on treatment are able to receive their full supplies of ARVs on time and consistently.

From visiting with male nurses at men’s clinics, talking with pregnant mothers around their kitchen table, and meeting young people in every district, I have also learned that to truly end AIDS in this country, we must actively fight back against the stigma and discrimination that keeps young people and men from accessing health services, whether for testing, prevention, or treatment.

If you ask me whether attitudes can really be changed, if services really can be accessible to all, my response is an emphatic YES.  As evidence, I give you the stories you just saw of our 10 PEPFAR Lesotho champions.  They are the proof that a different attitude, a different future is possible for Lesotho.

To get there, we need men like Ntate Thomas Monese and Kananelo Khalla.  Ntate Monese contracted the virus in the early 90’s. He enrolled on treatment after he got very sick and learned that he had AIDS. He is an example to men that if you step up, know your status, and adhere to treatment if diagnosed positive, you can live a long, healthy life. Take Kananelo, such a handsome and healthy young man, no one can tell by looking at him that he has been living with HIV since birth. Kananelo is not here tonight because he is in the United States, participating in a communities of faith event with PEPFAR and UNAIDS on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.  These men are stepping up as champions!

To reach our goal, we need to step up and acknowledge that girls and young women face the heaviest burden in this epidemic.  HIV prevalence is four times higher among females age 20-24 compared to their male counterparts.  In fact, a quarter of all new infections occur among adolescent girls and young women.  These statistics are profoundly troubling to me, as I know they are to you.  These statistics must be our call to action.  We need to step up on behalf of these girls.

In the film, you met our DREAMS champion, Nthabeleng (En-Tah-bell-eng) from TY.  You know, I have such a soft spot for the young women who participate in the DREAMS program.   They are so inspiring and I am so proud of them.

You saw in the documentary how Nthabeleng struggled to make a living for her siblings and her disabled Mom.  Sadly, we can all imagine some of the challenges she went through, because the reality is that too many young Basotho women experience similar ones.  Through the DREAMS initiative, which stands for Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-Free, Mentored, and Safe, Nthabeleng is now empowered and more optimistic about her future as a young Mosotho woman.

All of our champions have powerful stories and could tell you how the stigma and discrimination contributed to their struggle. This is one area where I feel all of us in this room can make a tremendous difference in changing the narrative and encouraging honest conversations around HIV/AIDS. With this END AIDS campaign and with the collaboration of our champions, we choose to be bold and to attack these issues head on.  

  • We are asking people to Be Aware of their risk, know their status, and learn about prevention.
  • We want people to Be Honest with their partners, families, and health care workers so that we can target HIV testing services to those most at risk, especially men and youth.
  • We want people to Be Accountable and adhere to treatment, because in doing so, they can reduce the risk of transmitting to partners. Remember, U=U!  Undetectable equals untransmittable.

In this way, each and every Mosotho man and woman, every girl and boy, can take an active role in building a healthier, more stable, and more prosperous future for this beautiful nation.

I am excited that this documentary will help spread that message. It will be shown on Lesotho Television and screened around the country through our American Corner on the road initiative. Each of you will get your own copy. I hope this will encourage you to start conversations with your friends and family about stigma and discrimination.

Before I conclude, I would like to thank Her Majesty from the bottom of my heart for joining us here today and lending her support PEPFAR and to our champions. You all know I have a favorite saying in Sesotho, and I think there has never been a more appropriate moment for me to repeat it – Motho ke Motho ka Batho. We are who we are because of other people. To all of you, our champions, thank you for your courage and your leadership, for making us better through knowing you and hearing your stories.

Kea Leboha. Khotso, Pula, Nala.