The involvement of women and girls, sex workers, persons who use drugs, men who have sex with men (MSM), and young people is crucial to the achieving the goal of zero new HIV infections by 2015.
Young people are particularly vulnerable because we cut across all key affected populations. We account for 3,000 of the 7,000 new infections per day. This adds up to about 40 percent of all new HIV infections. There are a myriad of reasons why infections are so high. Last week, on the panel entitled, Prevention–What Can be Done to Get to Zero New Infections, at the United Nations High Level Meeting on AIDS, on June 8, 2011 I highlighted that:
Prevention is failing because of the way in which HIV programs are designed to reach young people as those who need to be controlled. We are not addressed as rights-holders who should have healthy/fun/safe sex like anyone else. Forget talking to us about condoms and how to negotiate safe sex with our partners. It is vital that youth today have all the facts and not just the information adults think they are ‘ready’ for. Let us all accept that young people have sex for the same reasons adults have sex for—intimacy; love; for procreation, pleasure, income and gifts; or to avoid violence because they are being punished for their behavior. We urgently need comprehensive sexuality education if we are going to build an effective and sustainable response to HIV.
Data from UNAIDS suggests that young people are leading the HIV-prevention revolution at all levels—community, national, regional, and global—of the AIDS response. The most recent demonstration is our role and participation in the High Level Meeting on AIDS.
More than fifty of us were present and the number of us included in country delegations was historic for any UN meeting. The Netherlands delegation alone had three young people who were fully involved in the negotiations for the declaration of commitment. In April, over 200 of us met in Bamako, Mali for the first global Youth Summit on AIDS to develop a call to action for our leaders. Several young people have signed this—one young woman from Liberia, with the support of UNAIDS, collected more than 20,000 signatures. On June 7, 2011 several youth organizations hosted a preparatory meeting to plan around our advocacy during and after the High Level Meeting.
In my own country, through the Jamaica Youth Advocacy Network (JYAN), we have ensured that young people were engaged in all the processes leading up to last week’s meeting. JYAN participated in the Regional Universal Access consultation in Trinidad & Tobago, the Mali Youth Summit, the Caribbean Regional Dialogue on HIV, and the Low and the High Level Meetings. In fact, we hosted the first youth and universal access consultation on April 9, with twenty prominent youth leaders. We have achieved this with the support of Advocates for Youth, UNAIDS, and Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition, among others.
My colleague, Mawethu Zita, who is the focal point in Southern Africa for the Global Youth Coalition on HIV/AIDS, has also been doing tremendous work. Since the Mali Youth Summit he has organized a consultation about the Mali Call to Action. Through his leadership, some young people spoke to their National AIDS Councils and representatives at Youth and Health Ministries, and others have dialogued with a number of local youth organizations. In June, Mawethu was one of ten young people who met in Robin Island on the invitation of the Co-Chair of the UNAIDS High Level Commission. At the High Level Meeting, Mawethu facilitated a closed session on how young people can hold their governments accountable to their commitment.
Getting to zero is possible. Although governments must adopt and implement legal and policy frameworks that protect key affected populations and uphold their rights to access services as a principle, the direct participation of these populations is just as important. Governments must be encouraged to harness, invest in, and utilize the energy, capacities, and expertise of us young people to provide leadership to the development and implementation of policies and programs designed to mitigate young people’s risk and vulnerability to HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).