Youth voices grow stronger on HIV/AIDS

Published August 21, 2006

Youth delegates have applauded their inclusion in the 16th International AIDS Conference but underscored the need for world leaders and activists, as well as funding institutions, to involve them in building HIV/AIDS programs and initiatives.”I’m very impressed with this year’s conference. We’ve been part of the agenda. But we need more,” said Kerrel McKay, of the Jamaica-based Portland AIDS Committee, who spoke on behalf of youth during a plenary session, Time to Deliver: The Price of Inaction, held Aug.17. “We need a platform where we can be participants. You need to mobilize youth and not just provide them with recommendations.”Of the more than 24,000 delegates attending the Aug. 13-18 conference at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, more than 1,000 were youth, more than twice the number at the last AIDS conference held in Bangkok in 2004. Ms. McKay called for “quality sex education and wider dissemination of messages” on HIV/AIDS prevention and care in schools, churches, and youth clubs. “Sex education is still taboo in many parts of the world,” she said. But she warned that HIV/AIDS education cannot succeed unless youth are given the “freedom to express” themselves in safe venues.”There must be youth-friendly health services where youth will have the same privileges as adults,” said Ms. McKay, noting that youth are often unable to seek “the knowledge to protect themselves,” including information about the use of condoms. Homosexual and bisexual youth also face stigma and discrimination and, consequently, are unable to access information that could save their lives, she said.Ms. McKay, 21, has been an HIV/AIDS activist since losing her father to the disease. In a powerful presentation, she spoke of how she was told by her mother that her father was dying of AIDS when she was just nine years old. Watching him being slowly ravaged by the disease “was like being killed over and over again; my childhood, self-esteem and innocence was wasted away,” she said. The issues raised by Ms. McKay resonated with youth delegates who attended the plenary. A 13-year-old Canadian delegate spoke of how she has not had access to sex education in her school. “How do we get that to happen before it’s too late?” she asked. Ms. McKay said students must advocate for it in their schools and also empower themselves to seek such information. Teachers play a crucial role because young people see them as role models, said Ms. McKay. “But we must also do what we can to get and demand the information ourselves.”Stephen Lewis, United Nations special envoy on AIDS, also took up the cause of the youth saying they still have a “limited voice” and have had to struggle with the “hostility of the adult world.” Speaking at the closing ceremonies Aug. 18, Mr. Lewis decried the “appalling absence” of programs for young people. “This should be addressed beyond smarmy tokenism,” he said.Worldwide there are 12 million young people between the ages 15-24 and three million children with HIV/AIDS, said Ms. McKay. “About 6,000 young people and 2,000 children are being infected with HIV every day,” she added.The 2004 UNAIDS Report on the Global AIDS epidemic has stated that young people aged 15-24 account for half of all new HIV infections worldwide. In Canada, youth accounted for 27.3 per cent of all positive HIV tests in Canada from 1985 to 2004; females accounted for 42.5 per cent of these cases. The most common forms of transmission were heterosexual contact and men who have sex with men.At the plenary, some delegates also called for the involvement of street youth in HIV/AIDS advocacy programs, citing how injecting drug users also account for the rise in HIV/AIDS cases among youth.


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