Feature Story

14 August 2006

What Works in HIV Prevention: Engaging Young People

Dispatches from the XVI International AIDS Conference in Toronto

Youth projects are very well represented at the conference.

TORONTO, Canada — Three days before the XVI International AIDS Conference officially opened, youth delegates were preparing themselves to be more powerful advocates.

In the stately gothic buildings of the University of Toronto’s leafy campus, the 250 young people who comprise the Toronto YouthForce were studying policy and trade issues that affect HIV prevention and treatment. They were mastering the latest research and statistics about the epidemic. They were exchanging information and forging alliances. They were rehearsing what they would say if they found themselves in an elevator with an important diplomat.

The YouthForce network includes some of the most promising leaders from perhaps a hundred organizations and fifty countries. As Steve Kraus, chief of UNFPA’s HIV/AIDS branch declared at the opening of the Chasing the Dream Exhibit: “You have something special or you wouldn’t be here.”

Clearly this is a force to be reckoned with: Ranging in age from 16 to 26, YouthForce members are all raising awareness in their communities about HIV and AIDS. They work in clinics and schools, in small organizations and UN agencies, in radio and television, in orphanages and hospices. They display a sophisticated understanding of the epidemic (see box below) and an inspiring willingness to deal with it.

“Cynicism,” said one, “is not an option.”

“I was raised to fight for a world that will be free of HIV.”

“I’ve lost friends and family to this epidemic. This is very serious to me: it’s more than a job.”

“What we're seeing here is the formation of leaders and committed agents of change,” said Mary Otieno, technical adviser for HIV/AIDS and young people at UNFPA. “The young people we’re sponsoring will translate what they learn here into action in their own countries. These are the people who will shape the future of the epidemic.”

The YouthForce is just one of several youth networks that are represented at the conference. Youth played an important role the last four international AIDS conference, and the size of the youth delegation has more than doubled at each. Altogether, one of every 25 delegates, about 1,000 people in all, are under the age of 26. The conference programme includes 18 youth-specific sessions and 40 different activities at the Youth Pavilion.

“Why focus on young people?” asked a presenter at one pre-conference event.

“Because we’re the next generation,” said one person.

“We’re the most affected.”

“We think we’re invincible, but we’re not.”

The AIDS epidemic has demonstrated that no one, not even these young people who seem so resilient and so strong, are invincible. In 2005, nearly half of all new HIV infections were among people younger than 25. In that one year alone, the lives of some 5 million young people – the equivalent of the entire population of Toronto – were altered by most deadly virus in human history. Young women face the highest risk. The importance of reaching these young people was stressed by speaker after speaker.

“It’s going to take another generation to control the AIDS epidemic,” Dr. Peter Piot, the Executive Director of UNAIDS said at the Youth Opening and Reception on Saturday night. “You’re that generation.”

Piot was one of the busiest people in Toronto as the conference got underway. But on Saturday evening, and then again on Sunday morning, he addressed what he clearly considers to be a critical constituency.

“We know that prevention works among young people,” he said at the youth opening reception. “We’ve seen prevalence rates declining among young people in many places where interventions are in places. It’s proving a lot easier to change the behaviour of young people than of older men.”

Unless young people are at the table when plans are being made, programmes are unlikely to be successful, Piot added, and he vowed to give them a more formal role in decision-making. At a panel discussion the following morning, he praised UNFPA for its extensive work with young people. “We should all take a look at what UNFPA is doing, having youth internships in their offices,” he said. “It’s not only good for young people; it’s good for the organization.”

Throughout the week, UNFPA is supporting numerous youth activities. Several groups, including the Y-Peer Network and the African Youth and Adolescent Network on Population and Development, are hosting events and booths in the Global Village area of the convention hall. Throughout the week, they are performing and presenting and networking and passing out materials.

The Chasing the Dream photo exhibit, which portrays the intersection of eight young people with Millennium Development Goals will be on display. On Sunday afternoon, Richard Gere and producers from MTV Staying Alive briefed eight teams of young filmmakers, all of whom are youth delegates, about the challenge ahead: to write, shoot and edit a short film in just two days on an assigned subject. The results of the 48 Hour Fest will be screened on the evening of 17 August. 

— Janet Jensen

What Works in HIV Prevention: Voices from the YouthForce

Young people at Toronto were asked about what they’ve learned from their own experiences about HIV prevention. Their answers reveal a sophisticated understanding of the epidemic and that while no silver bullet can cure the problem, a range of interventions can work together to produce results. 


Question: In your own experience, what works in HIV-prevention?

Bagnomboé Bakiono
Executive Secretary, African Youth and Adolescents Network on Population and Development (AfriYAN), Burkina Faso

In Burkina Faso [which is one of a handful of countries that have significantly reduced prevalence rates since 2000], it is taboo to talk about many sexual matters. We have put together clubs of youth groups of all different ages – 10 to 14, 15-19, 20-24, 25-30 – to encourage dialogue. Some of the clubs are all girls, some all boys, some are mixed. Peer educators encourage dialogue within them and promote skills-building. And we support them with materials. One important step was first talking with the parents so they didn’t object. At first they didn’t like the idea of their children getting together to talk about these things.

 Karima McKenzie-Thomas
Youth Fellow at UNFPA, formerly with the Trinidad and Tobago HIV/AIDS Alliance

In the context of Trinidad and Tobago, what works is just bombarding people with accurate information. And I stress accurate. You need to know the whole picture. You need more than snippets of information. First you need to understand the threat, and realize that everyone is vulnerable, not just specific populations. And then you need to start changing behaviours.


Edford Mutuma
President, African Youth and Adolescents Network on Population and Development (AfriYAN), Zambia

Let me start with what doesn’t work. What doesn’t work is imposing things on an audience, forcing things on young people – like the abstinence-only agenda or the condom-only approach. In the African context, the ABC [Abstain, Be faithful, Use Condoms] approach is not working: first of all, it’s not gender-sensitive. Young women often don’t have the power to negotiate condom use to refuse sex. We shouldn’t limit ourselves – we should broaden ABC to include the whole alphabet – D for decision-making, E for empowerment, and so on. What works is empowering young people to make their own, informed decisions.