WASHINGTON, D. C. --- More than 25,000 participants are expected to converge on Washington for the 19th International AIDS Conference. But in the relative calm before the storm of people, plenaries, panels and posters, 200 young leaders from around the world were sharpening their skills and bolstering their knowledge so as to become more effective advocates for rights-based responses to the epidemic.
The three-day pre-conference offers an opportunity for young delegates to connect with their peers, plan strategy and maximize their ability to navigate AIDS 2012 successfully. It also gives young people a chance to learn about the latest trends in the epidemic and examine youth-specific issues, challenges and needs.
Mary Otieno of UNFPA talks about how recent trends in HIV effect young people.
Organized by YouthForce--a coalition of youth organizations from around the world—the pre-conference youth event has been an essential platform for young people since the Barcelona International AIDS Conference in 2000.
A pivotal force in keeping youth issues on the AIDS agenda
For the past decade , the YouthForce has been hailed as pivotal in keeping youth issues at the forefront of the international AIDS agenda, according to Aram Barra, the YouthForce chairperson in his opening remarks to the plenary. The coalition has become a powerful example of successful youth-led advocacy and engagement using innovative tactics tailored to changing demands, he said.
Aram also introduced a virtual a Declaration for Change platform can help youth organizations, networks and activists will collaborate and mobilize over the next years to reach the 2015 goals of the Political Declaration on AIDS.
A decade of training and support for young advocates
Throughout the past decade, UNFPA has been one of the staunchest supporters of the YouthForce, according to Mary Otieno, Senior Technical Adviser for UNFPA. "UNFPA has been consistent in supporting this mechanism that brings young people from all over the world together to learn and become activists for their cause. They have done this effectively, and this year's preconference was a great success."
“Young people bring a fresh perspective to the HIV response, fueled by passion and creativity,” added Mimi Melles, pre-conference co-chair and Officer at Advocates for Youth. “We are innovators and change-makers, and without our meaningful involvement, we will never be able to achieve our targets of zero new infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths,” she added.
Indeed, young people continue to bear a significant burden of the epidemic. Every day 2,400 young people aged 15 to 24 are infected with HIV around the globe, which represents 40 per cent of all new infections among adults.
Hearing from younger teenagers
For the first time, this year's YouthForce included delegates under age 18. " We heard closing remarks from a 16- and a 17-year-old, and it was refreshing to hear their stories of why they are involved and how the preconference has changed their lives, giving them resolve to continue advocating for the issue," said Ms. Otieno.
Throughout the pre-conference, delegates were emphasizing their key advocacy messages, which included access to comprehensive services including sexuality education and equality and partnership as vital to the HIV epidemic response.
Following the plenary, a panel of experts and activists presented information, ideas and strategies. Mary Otieno, Senior Technical Adviser for UNFPA, provided an overview of trends and data specific to young people, as well as evidence-informed recommendations for action. Maya Koumanova of the International Planned Parenthood Federation discussed comprehensive sexuality education--including what this means and what constitutes comprehensive. Pablo Aguilera of dance4life spoke about the needs and possible actions of groups most affected by HIV and Kikelomo Taiwo of Education as a Vaccine and Advocates for Youth, described youth-led advocacy and organizing efforts in Nigeria to improve an anti-discrimination and stigmatization bill to protect the rights of young people living with HIV seeking to be admitted to universities.