July 25, 2014

Young people must play leading role in HIV advocacy

Written by Brant Luswata, Key Correspondents network

This post originally appeared on the HIV/AIDS Alliance-supported website, Key Correspondents network, here. Reposted with permission.

Delegates at the AIDS 2014 conference (20-25 July) are recognising that young people are the future and it is vital to empower them to take a leading role in the response to HIV.

“If we want to end AIDS by 2030, we have to work with young people and make sure that we address all their issues. We know that young people are a gift from God,” said Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS, during the youth pre-conference in Melbourne, Australia.

Young people must be seen as people who can bring about real and lasting change in their communities, and yet are still often seen as people who cannot do anything good or productive. In Uganda, for example, they cannot take part in any decision-making and their views often go unheard. As a result, young people are suffering and dying because they don’t have the right information about HIV or know where to get HIV and sexual and reproductive health services. In the US, half of all new HIV infections occur among young people aged 13 to 24, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

But some young people are trying to change this. According to professor Sheila Tlou, director of the East and Southern Africa regional support team, UNAIDS, who gave the keynote speech at the opening ceremony: “There is nothing about us without us, meaning that we need to come out and fight for our lives instead of other people doing that for us.”

Involving young people

Involving young people who are both living with and affected by HIV is vital in fighting the epidemic. With half of the world’s population under 25, they clearly have a big role to play in achieving the UNAIDS goal of reaching zero new infections, zero AIDS-related deaths and zero discrimination by 2015.

With 2015 fast approaching, a group of youth and child-focused civil society organisations came together last May, to make recommendations to the UN High Level Panel on the post-2015 development agenda.

In an open letter to the panelists they said: “There is a clear call for universal access to affordable, quality healthcare and youth-friendly services that are particularly sensitive to young people’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, especially those living with HIV and young women and girls. Young people want to be supported to make informed and consenting decisions about their health, bodies and sexuality.”

Leading role

“Young people have to come up and take over because we are retiring and we need energetic people to come on board to push the agenda. Those people are the young people,” said Dr Lydia Mungherera of the Global Coalition of Women with AIDS Advisory Group.

AIDS youth programmes have been introduced in different countries to ensure that the young people get AIDS and sexual and reproductive health services which are integrated and accessible to every young person without discrimination.

Dr Rogers is working closely with young people in Uganda. “Back in my home country, we have two programmes which are addressing health needs of young people. These projects are called SHARP and LINK UP and they address almost every alphabet [all groups] that defines who is a young person,” he said.

Young people are now being represented on different committees, enabling them to bring their issues before the entire community – an important step in the right direction. Cissy, a young girl who is living with HIV in Malawi, said: “How can anyone speak for a young person living with HIV, when you yourself don’t know how it feels to be living with HIV?”

If the three zeroes are to be achieved, it is vital to empower, equip and educate young people. Only then will it be possible, as the UN believes, to end AIDS by 2030.

Read more about HIV and young people.

Brant Luswata is a young person living in Uganda and is a member of the Key Correspondents network which focuses on marginalised groups affected by HIV, to report the health and human rights stories that matter to them. The network is supported by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance