The latest report from UNAIDS says young people between the ages of 15 and 24 account for 40 percent of new adult HIV infections. It also says many are misinformed about prevention and transmission. Despite that, many young people are involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS and they’ll be attending the 19th International AIDS Conference.
Members of a global movement called YouthForce say young people lack access to many of the things that will protect them from HIV. They’re calling on leaders and policymakers to hear what they have to say about AIDS, and include them in decision-making.
Kikelomo Taiwo, a 25-year-old Nigerian woman, volunteers to fight stigma and discrimination in Abuja.
She said, “Anywhere you find people living with HIV, particularly in Nigeria, people stigmatize against them. People discriminate against them. It’s so bad that today in Nigeria compulsory HIV/AIDS testing is a prerequisite to get into the university. And once a university discovers you’re positive they deny you admission. Based on that we decided to come up with a campaign called the HIV/AIDS anti-stigma bill campaign.”
Taiwo criticized a current anti-stigma bill before parliament, saying does not go far enough.
“The bill only focuses on stigma and discrimination in the workplace. The needs of young people are not being considered. Because this government also knows – I want to believe they know – that young people are the most at risk, and the most affected population living with HIV. So we want to have an HIV/AIDS anti-stigma bill, but it doesn’t cover or protect the needs of young people,” she said.
She learned first-hand how vulnerable young people can be when they are uninformed and unprotected.
“Growing up as a child I was abused sexually. My sexual rights were violated. I didn’t get comprehensive sexuality education. I just felt like the people around me didn’t do well in giving me the right information, or the things I needed to become strong in my personality in making decisions. And I just wanted to learn more about sexuality, and also inspire young people to come out of their box and be all that they wanted to be,” she said.
Too often in Nigeria, she said, young people do not have a voice, and that many politicians and family members don’t listen.
“I personally feel like the Nigerian government leaders are just bloody politicians. They just talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, and they never do anything. As a young person who is not married, I don’t have health insurance. Education is so expensive,” she said.
Taiwo added Nigerian youth need help and resources to be healthy and educated.
Jaevion Nelson, a 26-year-old from Jamaica, is also attending AIDS 2012. He’s head of the Jamaica Youth Advocacy Network.
“I realized how important it was to begin to be involved in HIV and AIDS after getting over my fears about HIV and people living with HIV. All that sort of stuff that, you know, young people like myself are often times, because of ignorance, afraid to be involved. And it was a fantastic opportunity, because I realized just how all social issues I was working with over the years really impacted on young people’s sex lives, young people’s sexual reproductive health and young people’s rights,” he said.
He was not surprised by the UNAIDS report on the high-level of HIV infections among young people.
“Despite progress in HIV and AIDS over the world – despite progress in increased funding -- and despite more effective programs – young people’s needs are still underestimated and still largely unmet. And so it speaks to the level of seriousness that we need to approach HIV and AIDS,” he said.
25-year-old Kathy Wollner is starting her final year of medical school in Chicago. Like her YouthForce colleague Kikelomo Taiwo, she’s focusing on battling stigma.
“I think part of what attracted me to this work is that HIV and AIDS is often an illness that’s very stigmatized and affects communities that can be quite marginalized. And I come from a point of view where I believe that health care is a human right for all people,” she said.
Wollner said social media are powerful tools for spreading the YouthForce message about youth rights and needs.
“It’s very important,” she said, Young people around the world, even if they’re not able to participate closely in YouthForce planning, or if they’re not able to attend the conference themselves, their voice is still heard, and they can still state what they think is most important to be included in the work that YouthForce is representing at the international AIDS conferences.”
During AIDS 2012, YouthForce will issue a Youth Declaration. It’s based on the recommendations of hundreds of young people around the world on how best to end the epidemic.