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Inter Press Service
HEALTH-AFRICA: Listen to us, Young People Urge Leaders
Lewis Machipisa
December 6, 2000
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 the disease.

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 youth-to-youth approach."

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 noted.

"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 some stage".

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 20th century.

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.



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