Charlize Theron spoke at the opening ceremony of the 21st annual International AIDS Conference
Credit: Jürgen Bätz/AP Images

Speaking out in an impassioned opening ceremony speech at the 2016 International AIDs Conference, Monday, actress Charlize Theron charged that not enough is being done to end the ongoing epidemic affecting Africa’s population.

Theron, an AIDS activist and founder of the the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project, said during her speech at the 21st annual conference’s Durban, Africa, opening ceremony, “I think it is time that we acknowledge that something is terribly wrong.”

“It’s time to face the truth about the unjust world we live in, the truth is we have every tool we need to prevent the spread of HIV … let’s ask ourselves why haven’t we beaten this epidemic. Could it be because we don’t want to?”

Theron, who is from South Africa, asserted that some lives receive more value from society than others, which contributes to the virus’ spreading.

“We value men more than women. Straight love more than gay love. White skin more than black skin. The rich more than the poor,” Theron asserted. “And adults more than adolescents. I know this because AIDS does not discriminate on its own. It has no biological preference… it doesn’t single out the vulnerable, the oppressed or the abused. We single out the vulnerable, the oppressed and the abused. We ignore them, we let them suffer and then we let them die.”

The 40-year-old then called on the youth of today – the “drivers of social change” – to push to “end this epidemic,” calling the group “GenEndIt.”

“HIV is not just transmitted by sex. It’s transmitted by sexism, racism, poverty and homophobia,” Theron said. “And if we’re going to end AIDS we have to cure the disease within our own hearts and within our own minds first.”

In a press conference at the five-day event, Theron also spoke about the power and plight of youth in Africa, explaining, “Our young people are dying at a rate that should frighten us, and yet somehow we just don’t talk about them, at all, they are the forgotten ones.”

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The conference, held at the Durban International Convention Centre, drew speakers like Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations Secretary-General, and Chris Beyrer, the president of the International AIDS Society. The gathering focuses on bringing together persons living with HIV as well as policy makers in the search for an end-stop to the virus’ spread.

Theron started CTAOP in 2008 to help grassroots organizations teach African youth about prevention.

Here is Theron’s whole speech:

Good evening ladies and gentlemen. It is typical, when invited to speak at a conference, to begin by saying, ‘I am honored and grateful to be here.’

And I AM grateful to be given a chance to speak, and to be here with such an esteemed group.

But if I’m being honest with myself, and with you, I am also sad to be here at the 21st International AIDS Conference. This is the second time my home country of South Africa has hosted.

That’s not an honor. That’s not something we should be proud of. We shouldn’t have had to host this conference again.

Please understand, I don’t mean to insult anyone here or to belittle the extraordinary work that has been done by this amazing community over the years.

I have seen the impact of your work firsthand. I have been personally inspired by your commitment to this fight. Countless millions would have died without your dedication and your compassion.

But I think it’s time we acknowledge that something is terribly wrong.

I think it’s time we face the truth about the unjust world we live in. The truth is, we have every tool we need to prevent the spread of HIV. Every tool we need.

Condoms. PrEP. PEP. ART. Awareness. Education.

And yet, 2.1 million people, 150,000 of them children, were infected with HIV last year. In South Africa alone, 180,000 people died of AIDS last year. 2.1 million children and counting have been orphaned by this disease. I could go on for an hour with the horrifying statistics we all know so well.

But instead, let’s ask ourselves Why haven’t we beaten this epidemic?

Could it be that we don’t want to? And by ‘we,’ I don’t mean just the people in this room. I mean humanity – all of us.

Because when you ask why, you get the same answers again and again and again. Ending AIDS is too expensive. Too daunting. Too complicated. Too stigmatized. Too politicized. I’ll stop there, because these aren’t really answers. They’re excuses.

The real reason we haven’t beaten the epidemic boils down to one simple fact: We value some lives more than others. We value men more than women. Straight love more than gay love. White skin more than black skin. The rich more than the poor. Adults more than adolescents.

I know this because AIDS does not discriminate on its own. It has no biological preference for black bodies, for women’s bodies, for gay bodies, for youth or for the poor.

It doesn’t single out the vulnerable, the oppressed, or the abused.

WE single out the vulnerable, the oppressed, and the abused. WE ignore them. WE let them suffer. And then, WE leave them to die.

My foundation, CTAOP, and a number of our colleagues, are calling on today s young people to be the generation that ends this epidemic – to be ‘GenEndIt.’

But let’s be clear about what the ‘it’ in that sentence is. It is not just AIDS.

It is the culture that condones rape, and shames victims into silence.

It is the cycle of poverty and violence that traps girls in teen marriages and forces them to sell their bodies to provide for their families. It is the racism that allows the white and wealthy to exploit the black and poor, then blame them for their own suffering.

It is the homophobia that shames and isolates LGBT youth and keeps them from life-saving healthcare and education.

HIV isn’t just transmitted by sex – it’s transmitted by sexism, and racism, poverty, and homophobia.

If we are going to end AIDS, we must cure the disease in our hearts and minds first. And I believe young people are the ones to do it. Young people have always been drivers of social change. And this generation holds unique promise.

After all, this is the generation of Malala Yousafzai and Anoyara Khatun.

This is the generation that is shattering taboos and redefining old notions of gender, sexuality, and racial justice.

Not long ago, right here in South Africa, I watched a young LGBT activist challenge a bishop to accept ALL people into the church. Her courage and conviction was so inspiring to me.

And I know, her confidence comes from caring adults who create safe spaces to talk about tough issues without judgment; who educate and empower young people to take control of their bodies and ownership of their futures.

You are the world’s leading researchers, grant-makers, medical professionals, and program implementers.

The work you do is vital. It has changed the course of this epidemic. But it will not end it at least, not on its own.

Yes, we have to all play our parts. We have to work harder, and faster, and smarter than ever before. But it will not be our generation that ends AIDS. It will be the next generation.

I believe the single most important thing each of us can do after we leave here is to connect with a young person. Listen, truly listen, to what she has to say. Give her a seat at the table. Let her be part of the conversation. And let’s make sure our work reflects her input and her voice.

The solution to this epidemic isn’t just in our laboratories, offices, or conference centers like this one. It’s in our communities, in our schools, and streets where a smart choice or a helping hand can mean the difference between life and death.

Nelson Mandela said: ‘Young people are capable, when aroused, of bringing down the towers of oppression and raising the banners of freedom.’

If we support our young people, if we give them the confidence and the space to speak out against bigotry and injustice, and if we take the time to listen and empower them…they will end this epidemic.

In closing, I would like to thank you – all of you –for your amazing work and your commitment to this extraordinary movement. This assembly is truly inspiring. And I will say it again, I am incredibly grateful to be here.

But with all due respect, I hope we won’t keep meeting like this.

Since the first International AIDS Conference in 1985, we have been counting up, all the way to 21. Now it’s time for us to start counting down. We have set a goal to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030.

There are four more International AIDS Conferences between now and then. They must be our last.

Thank you.