Among the 20,000-plus scientists, community leaders, policy experts and activists at the just-concluded International AIDS Conference in Mexico City (August 3-8) were 1,000 young people from around the world. While they attended sessions, workshops and protest rallies, their mission in Mexico City was to represent the 5.4 million young people living with HIV and the more than 15 million who've been orphaned by the disease.
Many of the young people at this year's AIDS Conference gathered under a huge white circus tent set up behind the conference center. This is the Global Village, a place where delegates and the general public come together to exchange ideas among themselves and with the hundreds of grassroots organizations who have set up booths.
"Things back home are not very good," says Himakstu Piplani, 20, an activist from India. "First and foremost, the sex education program has been banned by 12 Indian states. So that's not a good thing because we are not getting adequate knowledge and information anymore."
"Secondly," Piplani continues, "the legal framework in India is not very good when it comes to AIDS and young people. We have laws that criminalize homosexuality. We have laws that criminalize drug use."
Education is also on the mind of Vanessa John Mlawi, 17, from Tanzania, Africa, where more than one million children under 17 have been orphaned by AIDS. She was invited by conference organizers to speak about her outreach work. She serves as a "peer educator" in her local schools.
"I provide accurate information to my other students," Mlawi explains. Because she is young, the students listen to her, and she believes "this will make a really big change."
Iman Kahani, a 26 year old physician from Morocco, would like to see more peer educators like Vanessa working to slow the AIDS epidemic among youth. She says advocacy work is a challenge in Morocco, where it is taboo to even mention sex in public. At a news conference in the Youth Pavilion, she criticized prevention programs that don't match the reality of young people's lives.
"We have heard a lot about abstinence only programs and [they don't] work," Kahani complains. "And we've even heard a lot about 'A-B-C' programs (that is, Abstinence, Be faithful, Use condoms programs.) But you cannot summarize one sexual and reproductive life in three ridiculous letters. It's a whole bunch of things that A-B-C doesn't tell."
Mary, a Kenyan, is 23 and HIV positive. She was infected four years ago after having unprotected sex. She represents the Kenya Organization of Youth Living with AIDS, a cooperative that employs young women to make beaded pins and bracelets to help support needed HIV/AIDS services.
She offers some frank advice about AIDS prevention: "I would like to tell the youth [out in the world] that they should never trust anybody, not even themselves. Even if you have to go for sex, at least they should use a condom because in this world you can't tell who has the virus now."
Mary says that's because with the antiretroviral drugs that she and her peers take, everyone appears healthy.
Andrew Francis, 21, agrees. He is a youth advocate for a U.S.-government-funded program in Jamaica, where half the population is under 24, a high risk group for HIV infection.
Francis says it's critically important that young people be engaged at every level of AIDS policy-making, about programs that address their health needs. "Because if they are not," Francis warns, "we will continue to see programs and policies that are being implemented that are not effective just because of the fact that they do not connect with young people."
Alischa Ross from Australia believes that young people have a lot to offer. Orphaned by AIDS as a teenager, she later founded a non-profit group called YEAH, an acronym for Youth Empowering Against AIDS.
"When you think about the fact that the majority of people in the world affected by HIV are young [that] means the majority of the people with the experience are young," Ross says. "So it makes perfect sense that we are at the center of responding to this pandemic."
Ross believes the youth presence at the 2008 International AIDS Conference was a hopeful sign that young people are, indeed, being empowered in their quest to secure the basic basic human right to a healthy future.