UN officials say every day 1400 children die of AIDS-related illnesses, while more than 6,000 young people are newly infected with HIV, the AIDS virus. That’s why UNICEF and UNAIDS are launching a major global initiative today (Tuesday) called “Unite for Children, Unite Against AIDS.”
The UN agencies say HIV/AIDS is “robbing tens of millions of children of their childhood and threatening their futures.” Besides the deaths and the new infections among young people, about 15 million children have lost at least one parent to the disease.
Unite for Children, Unite Against AIDS aims to include children in the political debate over how the world responds to the pandemic. One of those young people joining the debate and the new initiative is Livey van Wyk of Namibia. She’s 20 years old and has been living with HIV since she was about 17.
She says when her family learned she was HIV positive, she quickly faced stigma and discrimination. Born and raised in Windhoek, she was sent away to a farm some 170 kilometers from home.
“The first time when my mother found out she didn’t want to do anything with me. She said that I was going to die. She said that for the last days she’s not prepared to take care of me and that I should go to the farm and at least die there. When I ended up on the farm people had already found out that I was HIV positive. So, the day I landed on the farm is when the stone throwing started. And nobody wanted to touch me and nobody wanted to be in a closed area with me. So, I was in a dark room at home with my grandmother and she was the one also thinking that I was going to die. So, she was just praying with me and then later I got by with my status,” she says.
UNICEF and UNAIDS say the pandemic has caused many children to “miss out on an education” so they could care for sick family members. Many are forced to find work and some turn to the sex trade to raise money to buy food or medicine.
As part of the new initiative, Ms. Van Wyk will talk to her peers about the dangers of HIV/AIDS.
“Look at me, I’m HIV positive. I was infected when I was 17 years. I was dating. But, I was not ready for dating, but I dated. And, yes, I did have sex, unprotected sex and I got pregnant and I got the virus as well. So, you can also end up in this mainly because you all know that we are sexually active. So, we should be safe and we should make the right choices,” she says.
She has a three-year-old son who is HIV negative.
She says when she heard about Unite for Children, Unite Against AIDS, she believed it could change the lives of young people who are infected.
“I was listening to the radio where I was lying at home on the farm and I heard about a launch in one of the areas near our village. And it was the National Association of People Living with HIV and AIDS in our country. So, they were having a launch in the area nearby, so I decided to hitch and hike to that area and just meet people,” she says.
For the first time, she met people who willingly made their HIV status public in an effort to end the myths and misconceptions about the disease.
UNICEF and UNAIDS say their goals include reducing the number of young people living with HIV by 25 percent by 2010. Also, offering services to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV to 80 percent of women in need by 2010. And providing anti-retroviral drug treatment to 80 percent of the children in need.
For Livey Van Wyk, the campaign has changed her life. “Since I got involved I got stronger. I’ve gained a lot of hope,” she says.
She’s in New York City taking her message to UN officials and delegates.