by Kingsley Essomeonu
Published on: Feb 8, 2005
Type: Opinions

If there is a way to halt the spread of HIV/AIDS in Nigeria, there must be focus on young people as more than half of the newly infected are between 15 and 29 years old. According to Carol Bellamy, UNICEF’s Executive Director, “global success in combating HIV/AIDS must be measured by its impact on children and young people…we cannot let another generation be devastated by AIDS.” Peter Piot, the Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, UNAIDS went on further to say that, “according special priority to young people will change the future course of the HIV epidemic…the challenge is to promote effective programmes engaged to HIV/AIDS in every country”.

Nigeria in line with the Global Response to the fight HIV/AIDS through the Presidential AIDS Council PAC, and National Action Committee on AIDS, NACA (2001) has instituted “a multisectoral national strategy and financing plans to combating HIV/AIDS.” Over the years, young people were not an explicit part of the strategy and financing plans, as there has never been a strong or high level of political commitment for these strategy and plans.

The Nigerian government and its agencies have put up policies regarding HIV/AIDS prevention, care, support and rights. But such policies as the National Policy on HIV/AIDS of 2003 gave little concern to youths without implementation, and the National Youth Agenda of 2004 intentionally excluded Sexual Reproductive Health services (SRH) and HIV/AIDS issues. But youths maintain that SRH and HIV/AIDS should form a component of the agenda.

Young people, especially those living with HIV/AIDS, are not involved in the development process of such government polices. No wonder there are no concrete and executable specifications within the range of government programmes and services focused on HIV/AIDS prevention, care and support of young people. Programmes on HIV prevention, Sexual Reproductive Health services, Voluntary Counselling and Testing, diagnosis and treatment of sexually transmitted infections are not widely spread across the geo-political areas and states--especially the Southeast, South and Northwest. Where they exist, they are pseudo-functional.

Due to these pitfalls in government activities, the transmission of HIV/AIDS increases and spreads. The issues and concerns of young people are not enshrined on government policies and where they exist are not implemented and do not promote the rights of those living with HIV/AIDS. Youth involvement, representation and participation are near zero, and this imbalance is a result of one-sided sponsorship by the UN System and Development partners. See the list of the United Nations Population Fund-supported youths at the 4th National conference on HIV/AIDS in 2004; out of 2000 youth participants at the conference, only 52 were HIV-positive.

Irrespective of the fact that there is little or no focus on young people, especially those living with HIV/AIDS, youth participation at the national conference and activities in HIV prevention are encouraging. It is suggested that youth should be maximally involved with funding priorities for young people and a formal national scholarship mechanism by the UN System and Development partners for future conferences and training.

Preventive Health services including HIV Prevention have not been completely and effectively streamlined into school curriculum. Since 2002, UNICEF and the National Youths Services Corps (NYSC) have been using Peer Education in schools in its Reproductive Health HIV AIDS prevention project. The NGOs are also working on that at the secondary and tertiary levels of education. The British Council, NACA and some Development partners have come up with a policy of HIV/AIDS education in primary schools under the Family Life Education of the Universal Basic Education, UBE. The World Bank has also integrated the HIV/AIDS prevention (Family Life Education) program into the existing curriculum in schools. Not much attention is given to educating out-of-school youths on HIV/AIDS prevention because they are considered “hard to reach”--disabled or poor.

It has been a problem to mainstream HIV prevention methods into the education sector. Out-of-school young people and youth organizations are not able to assess funds for HIV education in and out of school. This is due to strong official bottlenecks and demand for registration with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) in order to get funds. As most youth organizations are rurally or locally based, it is advisable to wave CAC registration; rather, they should register with their local and state authorities. Notwithstanding many youth organisations, NGOs have achieved success through HIV education projects at the grassroots level. Since 2002, the UNICEF and NYSC Reproductive Health and HIV/AIDS prevention project has taken HIV education to the doorsteps of over 6 million adolescents and youths across 36 states.

According to UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, “we must empower young people to protect themselves through information and supportive social environments that reduce their vulnerability to infection.” Information on HIV/AIDS for young people is found in government and NGO programmes (for example, the popular ZIP UP by Society for Family Health). They are fashioned as media jingles, adverts and billboards. They emphasise sexual behaviour, abstention, mutual monogamy between uninfected partners, and the correct and consistent use of condoms.

The government has not done much to provide support to Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVC infected with HIV/AIDS). Stigmatization and discrimination against young people living with HIV/AIDS are on the increase. A strong example is the exclusion of the five representatives of young people living with HIV/AIDS from the National Youth Network on HIV at the 2004 National Youth Forum on HIV/AIDS. There are incidences of discrimination and stigmatization of infected young people in areas of employment, healthcare, access to treatment and involvement in national processes. These defy the standards of the Universal Declaration of human rights, the International Covenants on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Nigerian constitution.

Young people were not involved in the planning, implementation, care and support of HIV/AIDS prevention programmes. But involvement began in 2004 at the 4th National Conference on HIV/AIDS, the National Youth Consultative Meeting on HIV/AIDS and the National Youth Forum on HIV/AIDS.
In line with the words of Gro Harlem Brundland, World Health Organization Director General, “young people need adult assistance to deal with the thoughts, feelings and experiences that accompany physical maturity. Evidence from around the world has clearly shown that providing information building skills on human sexuality and human relationships help to avert health problems and create more mature and responsible attitudes.”

The involvement of young people has faced serious constraints due to lack of a national youth coalition: inadequate attention on young people living with HIV/AIDS; inadequate representation; funding and sponsorship of youths regarding geo-political zones, states, ethnicity, religion, HIV status and sexual orientation; inadequate capacity and skills building; and lack of strong political commitment.

Youths in Nigeria are reversing the trend from an opportunity of crisis. They are now the solution, not the problem. With the support and co-operation of the government and its agencies, the UN System, Development partners and large NGOs, we will soon count our blessings and name them one after the other. With the efforts and concerns of coalitions and networks of young people across the globe and in unity, we shall fight AIDS.

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