ADDIS ABABA, Dec 6 (IPS) - Young people attending the African
Development Forum (ADF) on AIDS here are urging the continent's
leaders to listen to their input and take them seriously in the
fight against HIV/AIDS.
"We are the most affected but we are not involved in policy
making, in programmes that deal with HIV/AIDS. It's time you
give us a chance," says Moses Imiyi, executive co-ordinator of
Nigeria Youth Action Rangers.
Out of the 36.1 million people living with HIV/AIDS globally,
1.3 million are children below 15 years. More than 500,000
children below 15 years old died in 1999 alone. Since the
beginning of the epidemic 3.8 million children have died from
Young delegates to the conference have noted that the key to
finding lasting solutions is to include the youth in research
and development of a viable strategy to combat the spread of
the disease. There is always the danger, they say, that when
authority is addressing the youth the message will be subverted
and precisely the wrong lesson will be learnt.
"If you want to get the message across, don't depend on
presidents or scientists. Let the youth talk to each other in
the language they understand," says Mbuso T, a young television
celebrity with Channel O, the popular South Africa young
people's TV station which broadcasts all over the continent.
"If you want to sell Shield deodorant to men, you get your most
famous soccer star to say he uses Shield and it sells like hot
cakes. It's a tried and tested marketing technique. So why
should the fight against AIDS be any different?" he asks. Mbuso
T has come to Addis Ababa to host a musical show to raise
HIV/AIDS awareness. The show is set for Wednesday.
Imiyi says because they are not consulted, the programmes are
not youth friendly and are not understood by them. "That's why
the incidence of AIDS is on the increase. There is a need for a
There are no mechanisms to ensure that the experiences,
perceptions and capacities of the youth are expressed, valued,
understood and taken into consideration in the development
policies and programmes, he says.
"We are used as tools. If you want to fill up chairs at a
conference, invite young people and your donor is pleased,"
says Imiyi. "If you want placards carried, invite young people
and your job is done. But where it matters most, being part of
the policy formulation, we are nowhere near. We are sick and
tired of being used as tools for leaders selfish needs."
"If we are to win this war, then the youth have to be
empowered," says Imiyi.
The Joint UN programme on AIDS (UNAIDS) agrees with the young
people gathered here. A study it conducted among nearly 3,000
young people in seven countries in Africa, Asia and the
Americas shows that young people themselves must be included in
the development of health promotion programmes if prevention
approaches are to be relevant.
Young people's sexual conduct, their attitudes about sex, and
the individual and shared investment they have in sexual
exploration, pleasure and activity, must be represented in a
plausible and respectful manner to convince young people
everywhere that HIV/AIDS is a real danger to them, UNAIDS
"To achieve this accurate and fitting representation of young
people's sexual conduct in health promotion material and
programmes, it is important to know more than their specific
sexual practices, the frequency of coitus, the age of sexual
initiation, or the extent of sexual experimentation of various
kinds," notes UNAIDS.
Although UNAIDS is sceptical about generalising these findings
to all young people, the study, it says, is valuable in helping
to rethink notions of sexuality.
"(It) enables us to think about sexual expression as a set of
meaningful acts, not just as a biological urge. In this way,
sex can be seen as a deeply inscribed process of
self-construction, pursued in the context of changing social
expectations and often rapid economic change."
According to Imiyi the young people will deliver a "no-holds
barred message to the heads of state on Thursday. "The response
to HIV/AIDS by our leaders is most disappointing."
They will strongly urge the heads of states not to take out
loans to fight HIV/AIDS as "we will have to pay for this at
To stop the spread of the disease, the youth say they will urge
the introduction of sex education in primary schools with the
information packaged according to the reality of their lives.
According to the ECA, there is a critical need to ensure,
through an appropriate volunteer system, the meaningful
representation of affected individuals in key organisations and
institutions engaged in the response to the HIV epidemic at
community, district and national levels.
Charloote Mjele, a 22-year-old South African woman living with
HIV is one such individual. She is urging policymakers to see
young people as allies in the fight against poverty, the
breeding ground of HIV/AIDS, and she wants those living with
disease to break their silence and disclose their HIV status.
Such approaches have proved to be effective. Though less than
one percent of those who are HIV positive has come out in the
open, they have become powerful change agents in Africa.
UNAIDS has warned that unless the fight is intensified, more
people will die from AIDS in Africa than in all the wars of the
At least some of the governments on the continent agree that
young people are needed desperately to stem the flow of the
disease. "Our hope lies with the uninfected youth less than 15
years of age. Keeping young people HIV negative is probably the
greatest challenge to us Africa leaders," says Justin Malwezi,
vice president of Malawi.