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NEW YORK, New York (Sept. 30, 2000 - UNDP/PINA Nius Online)---A journalist from French Polynesia, a mother from Malawi, a Nicaraguan psychologist, and a Polish priest - all of whom have been leading the fight against HIV/AIDS in their communities - will receive UNDP’s Fourth Annual Race Against Poverty Awards. It will come during a special ceremony at the United Nations.

The event, marking the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty (IDEP) under the theme, "Breaking the Silence on HIV/AIDS," will take place on October 23 in the UN General Assembly Hall.

The award winners are Maire Bopp Dupont (French Polynesia), Catherine Phiri (Malawi), Rita Arauz Molina (Nicaragua), and Father Arkadiusz Nowak (Poland). Each was selected by UNDP¹s IDEP Awardees Selection Committee following a global search for individuals who are making a difference in the fight against poverty and its underlying causes, specifically HIV/AIDS.

The four activists will be introduced by UNDP Administrator Mark Malloch Brown and will receive their awards from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

UNDP Goodwill Ambassador Danny Glover will be the Master of Ceremonies of the evening’s event. The ceremony will feature performances by musical artists Mary J. Blige, Youssou N’Dour, Angelique Kidjo, the Soweto String Quartet and others. There will also be appearances by a number of UNDP Goodwill Ambassadors, including Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer, Japanese author and actress Misako Konno, and renowned soccer player Ronaldo.

The Race Against Poverty Awards Ceremony is an annual event organized by UNDP to mobilize worldwide support for the goal of poverty eradication. It is part of a variety of events worldwide being organized by UNDP country offices to commemorate the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty (October 17) and the International Decade for the Eradication of Poverty (1997-2006).

"HIV/AIDS has a qualitatively different impact than a traditional health killer such as malaria," said Mr. Malloch Brown. "It rips across social structures, targeting young people, particularly girls. By cutting deep into all sectors of society, it undermines vital economic growth. And by putting huge additional demand on already weak, hard to access, public services, it is setting up the terms of a desperate conflict over inadequate resources."

Until two years ago, Maire Bopp Dupont, 25, was like any other college student -- attending lectures in journalism at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji and shooting the breeze with friends after class.

On October 26, 1998, Maire's exciting and carefree world crashed: she found out that she was HIV positive.

Maire had been feeling lethargic for several weeks that year, struggling with lung problems and a high fever. So, she checked into a hospital in Suva, the Fiji capital, for a series of blood tests only to find out that she had contracted the AIDS virus. "It was a huge shock," she recalls. "I kept asking 'why me'?"

Her initial reaction then was to keep her discovery a secret. But when she realized that others could have also contracted the virus, she felt a sense of responsibility to inform her parents, her two brothers and friends. Maire also felt that, through her story, journalists could help create greater awareness about HIV/AIDS. "My mum was initially disappointed and ashamed," she says. But eventually, Mrs. Dupont came round: a teacher herself, she understood the importance of sharing information and educating people.

In December 1998, while still studying at the university, Maire went public with her HIV-positive status during a Pacific Island News Association (PINA) conference in Tahiti. Her campus mates reacted with a combination of panic, pain, confusion, and judgment at her revelation. It was an emotionally trying period for Maire. "Honesty and love helped me handle the various issues and bring my family and friends together," she says. "It is only in difficult times that you know who your best friends really are."

In October 1999, Maire won PINA's Pacific Freedom of Information Award for her outstanding efforts in the promotion and defense of freedom of information and expression in the region. Her own experience and the award confirmed Maire's future direction: to educate Pacific island youths, families, communities and the general public on HIV/AIDS and issues surrounding the deadly virus and the disease.

Following graduation in December 1998, Maire joined Tahiti's Radio Tefana as a journalist in May 1999. Early this year UNAIDS -- the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS -- with the University of the South Pacific and the Ministry of Health invited Maire to Fiji to speak about HIV/AIDS. Fiji, with a population of 806,000, now has 59 "officially" reported cases of AIDS.

In Fiji, Maire's audiences included primary and secondary school children, tertiary students and parents. It was the first time that they had spoken to someone who is HIV positive. But she was alarmed at the level of ignorance and lack of accurate information about sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS, especially in rural schools.

Recently, Maire visited Papua New Guinea for advocacy work with the PNG AIDS Council. PNG is the most threatened nation in the South Pacific, with the highest number of reported AIDS cases. Of the 1,741 reported HIV positive cases so far, 618 have died. Maire has traveled to the Cook Islands speaking to communities, schools and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), advocating for useful and effective information about the epidemic. With the media, she appeals for sensitive reporting on AIDS issues.

Maire is currently president of a Tahitian NGO for HIV/AIDS awareness in French Polynesia, through which she organized an eight-hour entertainment extravaganza in May 2000. This event brought together popular local artists, religious groups and other organizations in solidarity for people living with HIV and in memory of those who died, leading to the May Candle Light Ceremony. The NGO raised about US$ 1,500.

At the radio station, Maire hosts a talkback show. Her fervent hope is that through her example and her advocacy work, other HIV positive people will be encouraged to come out into the open about their status, and form a network to support one another and break the silence on HIV/AIDS.

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