AIDS needs more young voices Living with AIDS # 182

Young people around the globe are at the heart of the AIDS epidemic. Thirty two percent (12.1 million) of under 25 year-olds are HIV-positive, according to UNAIDS. Despite the disproportionate risks and burdens they face, young people are also the world’€™s best hope in the fight against the epidemic. But voices of youth were still marginal at the 15th International AIDS Conference in Bangkok, Thailand

Duration: 4min 05sec


KHOPOTSO:   At the last AIDS conference held in 2002 in Barcelona, Spain just over 200 young people attended the bi-annual meeting of policy-makers, scientists, researchers, media and activists. This year, almost 300 young people attended. For the first time ever, the 15th International AIDS Conference in Bangkok, Thailand, created an opportunity for youths to participate in matters related to young people and HIV/AIDS. This will hopefully enable them to become better leaders in their own right ‘€“ as advocates for themselves and as educators and organisers for their peers, communities and adult allies. When Carolina Real, a 16 year-old from Latin America who now lives with her family in New Jersey in the United States, agreed to accompany her Television Producer mother to Asia, she had no clue that she would end up attending the AIDS Conference. But she does not regret having accepted the offer.

CAROLINA REAL: I’€™m learning. I’€™m meeting new people. And I’€™ve learnt how important fighting against AIDS is. Where I’€™m from we talk about it, we care about it, but we don’€™t really think it could happen to us. And that’€™s really ignorant from my little small town. Coming here, I’€™ve learned that it could happen anywhere. It could happen in any country. It could happen even in a small town. It could happen to anybody’€¦ Even in our school we talk about it, but we usually see videos of other countries, never really from our country. So, we don’€™t really think it could happen to us, you know. It’€™s a disease that happens in other countries. But it’€™s not like that.

KHOPOTSO: Indeed. In the United States 25 % or one quarter, of the nearly one million people infected with HIV do not know their status. Carolina is fortunate that she could attend the 15th International AIDS Conference. She’€™s also lucky that her mother can openly talk to her about sex and sexually transmitted infections, such as HIV. However, up until now she has not taken her mother’€™s teachings that seriously. To share her experiences of the conference, she has begun making a video for her high school back in New Jersey. She laments the fact that only a few young people were able to attend the conference.

CAROLINA: I haven’€™t seen a lot of young people here, and I would have thought that you would want to have more young people here. In the sessions it’€™s more about strategies and stuff. But, I think we should talk more to the youth.

We should invite more youths to come from different parts of the world, not only Asia or South Africa. That’€™s what I’€™ve seen a lot. I think we should have more the United States, more Hispanic people here, I think we should have more young people here because those are the people that need to learn more. I think this is more addressed to adults more than to youth. That’€™s what I think.

KHOPOTSO: Carolina Real’€™s 14 year-old younger brother, Miguel, shares this sentiment.

MIGUEL REAL: More young people should talk. It’€™s more like adults talking in the conference.

KHOPOTSO: Carlos Martel, a 23 year-old law student and community AIDS worker in Honduras, a small central American country with an estimated 22 000 people infected with HIV out of a population of 6.5 million, also believes that the voices of young people   are being drowned out. But, even though youths are key in the fight against HIV/AIDS, he cautions that their participation should not be tokenistic.

CARLOS MARTEL: We have to strengthen youth participation in this. But, we have to participate not just to attend this conference as a trip. No, we have to attend and make proposals, technical proposals, possible proposals, achievable proposals.  

KHOPOTSO: The youth of the Bangkok AIDS Conference have vowed to go back to their respective countries to mobilise more young people. They hope to have one thousand youths participating at the next conference in Toronto, Canada, in 2006. To borrow from the teachings of Confucius: if policy makers, scientists, researchers and activists on HIV/AIDS continue to tell the youth what to do, they will forget. If they inform them, they might remember. But if they involve them, they will take part in programmes aimed at fighting the epidemic, most importantly when it comes to preventing new infections.  

E-mail Khopotso Bodibe

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