| HIV/AIDS has become a disease of young people, with nearly 7,000 infections occurring among 15 - 24 years olds everyday. HIV/AIDS is unarguably a disease fueled by poverty, gender inequality and complacency.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, many young people who are supposed to be self-sufficient still depend on the meager income of their parents, that can hardly meet their own demands. These young people therefore cannot make decisions on their own.
Preventing new HIV infections is ultimately the key to defeating AIDS. When young people are properly equipped, and financially self-sufficient, that is when they can make responsible choices. Although many have argued that if they are not properly guided, they could be financially reckless, leading them to other risky behaviours.
They urgently need adequate information, skills, services and opportunities to prevent infections and continue to lead a healthy life. Recent consultations on 'meeting the rights of young people on HIV/AIDS prevention and care' by UNICEF, showed serious deficiencies in HIV/AIDS prevention strategies among the different groups consulted. The objective of the consultations was to explore young people's perceptions of "access to HIV/AIDS prevention, care and support services".
The strategy, designed to engage young people as true partners in the fight against HIV/AIDS, was carried out in some Sub-Saharan African Countries like Senegal, Uganda and Zambia, and in some countries in Asia.
The group made the following observations, and they reaffirmed that young people are eager to be engaged actively in the fight against HIV/AIDS, if given the opportunity.
YOUNG PEOPLE NEED ACCURATE INFORMATION, KNOWLEGDE AND LIFE SKILLS:
Many young people lack critical information to protect themselves from the disease. This information will correct the misconceptions about HIV/AIDS, which they have learnt overtime. For instance, in Cambodia, there is a belief that sex with a virgin has creative powers. They also believe that masturbation can damage one's health, especially the brain. In South Africa, many young people believe that sex with a one-year old baby can completely eliminate the virus from the blood stream. In Malawi and some parts of Nigeria, local charms are assumed to provide some form of protection against HIV infection. Some even think that HIV is an evil attack or witchcraft.
In some countries, young people feel embarrassed or uncomfortable discussing certain issues, such as sex, condom use etc. These issues are regarded as belonging to the exclusive domain of adults and married people. In this case, access to accurate information, knowledge and life skill become imperative.
YOUNG PEOPLE NEED ACCESS TO SERVICES, TESTING AND TREATMENT:
In rural communities and areas affected by conflicts, services for HIV/AIDS prevention are generally unavailable. This prevents them from making informed decisions on the prevention of HIV/AIDS, and other Sexually Transmitted Diseases. Harm reduction activities, strategies that minimize the consequences of risky behavior, care and support services, etc for young people, are not readily available, especially for those living in remote areas.
Some of them expressed the need for clinics, where they could get access to information, as well as services like Voluntary Counseling and Testing (VCT). But others are afraid of the HIV test, out of fear of facing the truth. Shyness to face counselors, doctors and other people at the Medical Consultation, lack of money, fear of discrimination and judgment, lack of counseling and testing centers, lack of information about testing and counseling, fear of having to keep a secret in case the person tests positive and peer pressure not to have a blood test are also some of the problems.
"Let us not pay lip service. If I may ask, how many youths in the different countries take part in dialogues with the policy makers? If something is for the youths, they need to take part in designing it'', one voice from Uganda said.
YOUNG PEOPLE NEED A SAFE AND SUPPORTIVE ENVIRONMENT:
Young people, especially those living with HIV/AIDS, feel that community attitudes are still very negative in many areas. They said that HIV positive children are being abandoned. Some are rejected by orphanages, forcing them to live in the infectious disease departments of hospitals. They also complained that they have few opportunities to gain relevant employment experience, which would prepare them for the workforce and provides hope for the future. They specifically identified poverty and unemployment as major problems they have to face.
YOUNG PEOPLE KEY MESSAGES:
Our greatest problem is not HIV/AIDS, but the lack of knowledge to protect ourselves. People around the world should have access to information on the HIV/AIDS epidemic. It should not only focus on the threat of AIDS, but rather on truthful information that can prevent infection. A bad media message may cause misconceptions that will require much time and effort to correct.
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