HARARE— Young people in Zimbabwe, a country with one of the world’s highest rates of HIV and AIDS, have told their government officials that the country can only meet its 2015 goal of a zero HIV infection rate if they are involved in policy making.
Young Zimbabweans applaud themselves after presenting their demands to their government this week at a special strategy meeting on combating HIV/ AIDS.
About 100 youth representatives attended the meeting and argued their input will be key.
“I need to stand for a change as a youth," says Yeukai Mutazo, 23, from the Young People’s Network on Sexual Reproductive Health HIV/AIDS, which organized the meeting. "Even if it is a national emergency, this HIV issue, we are saying anything for the youths without the youths is against the youths.”
Mutazo notes that the majority of people living with HIV in Zimbabwe are young. More than 14 percent of Zimbabweans between the ages of 15 and 49 have the virus. That is the fifth highest infection rate in the world.
In 1999, Zimbabwe became the first country in Africa to introduce a 3 percent tax on salaries to raise money for AIDS treatment and prevention programs. But activists have complained that money is not going where it should - to the many patients still not getting access to medications needed to live with the virus.
The activists think they can help address the problems. Madeline Dube of Zimbabwe's National AIDS Council says she hears their call to action and will involve them to reach the country’s goal of no new HIV infections in just three years’ time.
“We decided as National AIDS Council [that] we should have representation within the organization, somebody who coordinates the work of young people in terms of HIV and AIDS," Dube says. "We now have Young People’s Network on Sexual Reproductive Health HIV/AIDS.”
Mutazo says better education in the public schools is part of the youth network's agenda.
“What we want to make noise about is the issue of a comprehensive sexuality education be included in the school curriculum in Zimbabwe," Mutazo adds. "So what we want is that people should know that their sexual and reproductive rights, as well as their health. So when they are taught at school, they will be careful as they grow, they will be empowered and would know how to take care of their health.”
Tatiana Shoumilina, who heads the United Nations AIDS program in Zimbabwe, agrees that educating youths is crucial to fighting the spread of the disease.
“When it comes to HIV, the young people are at highest risk," she says. "They are more active, they are experimenting, they are not fully aware that they can be affected by a diseases… Sometimes this brings them to a risk of contracting HIV.”
The youth group also wants more representation on the National AIDS Council - which is the government’s policy implementation arm.
As Zimbabwe prepares to commemorate this year’s World AIDS Day on December 1 - with the slogan "Getting to Zero" - the country faces a massive task. While the United Nations says new HIV infection rates have dropped by 50 percent in Zimbabwe, the country still has 1.2 million people living with the virus.