What is youth? It is pure energy coursing through our every sinew, fuelling seemingly implacable optimism and self-belief. Multiply this potential by 1.6 billion – the number of 12-24 year-olds in the world today – and you end up with an unstoppable force for positive change.
However, this raw potential can be swiftly erased by just three letters: H. I. V. Well, not by the actual letters, but by what they represent.
These letters not only signify a debilitating disease. They also embody stigma, discrimination, gender inequality, poverty, and the list goes on.
Try viewing HIV from an alternative perspective. Think back to your distant (or not so distant) youth. Now, try to imagine your alarm clock ringing at an ungodly hour each night just so you can take your HIV drugs. Your sleep is never disturbed though – the fear of tomorrow's shame and isolation keeps you awake at night. Not the best way to spend your formative years, yet this is the reality for millions of young people living with HIV.
“The stigma surrounding people living with HIV is sometimes worse than the actual virus that we're living with. Stigma is something hard to define, but in reality it is anything that attempts to define who 'we' [those living with HIV] are, have been, or will become,” explains Josh Robbins, a young HIV advocate living with the virus.
In 2011, 2.5 million people were newly infected with HIV, 42 percent of them 15-24 year-olds. So, whether we like it or not, young people are at the centre of this pandemic. Some might fear that HIV – a disease that has ravaged so many over the past 30 years – could persist and steal away an entire generation.
Unfortunately for HIV, young people do not share this fear. By our very nature, we are defiant, we are creative, and, most importantly, we are tenacious. Young people may be more vulnerable to HIV, but ironically we are also the key to stopping this disease and the societal problems it breeds.
We are not passive bystanders waiting for help to arrive. Instead, we are active agents of change, our minds teeming with questions about why the world is how it is: why can't I learn about sex at school? Why do I need my parents' permission to get contraception? Why do some girls have to marry so young?
If you haven't already noticed, young people are impatient. We want to know a world without HIV, and we want it now. While governments and other international organisations are working tirelessly towards this goal, few actually stop to ask us how we think this vision should be achieved. After all, if you want to know how to communicate with young people, then ask a young person.
Why not go even further, like the MTV Staying Alive Foundation: talk to young people in a language they can relate to, give young leaders your trust, and give them the resources and training they need to go into their communities and prevent HIV among their peers. This approach has led to the most innovative modes of HIV prevention. From using sport to teach 12–14 year olds about HIV in Washington DC, USA, to using music and radio to broadcast safe-sex messages to young people in Manipur, India.
Medical advances have redefined HIV; a disease once considered to be a death sentence can now be treated and controlled. Society, however, has not advanced as quickly as medicine. Social barriers continue to encourage gender inequality with disastrous consequences. Young women have HIV infection rates twice as high as men. Worse still, HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death and disease in women of reproductive age. If girls are denied their right to education, then how can they ever hope to negotiate safe sex or financially provide for themselves and how can the world ever hope to end HIV? As Nelson Mandela says, “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”