The 10th International Congress on AIDS In Asia and the Pacific (10th ICAAP) recently held in Busan, South Korea, clearly brought out the need to engage the key affected young population of the Asia and Pacific region in ownership and leadership of HIV responses. It would not be possible to achieve the three zeros - Zero new HIV infections, Zero discrimination and Zero AIDS related deaths - without meaningful participation of the young community.
Across the Asia-Pacific region an estimated half a million young people, aged 15-24 years, are living with HIV. A significant number of all new infections are among young key populations, such as sex workers, men who have sex with men, transgender people and injecting drug users, who are at higher risk of HIV infection. Stigma, discrimination, homophobia and criminalisation of same sex behaviour prevent young people from accessing care and treatment. But the greatest obstacle is the existence of punitive laws that prevent access to HIV treatment and care services.
The transferring of skills and knowledge from one generation of leaders to the next, which would be a two-way learning and sharing experience, is the need of the hour.
Keeping this in mind, The Asia-Pacific Interagency Task Team on Young Key Affected Populations launched a New Generation (New Gen) Asia initiative at 10th ICAAP, to engage young people from or working with young key affected populations as leaders and active participants and empower them through a multi-faceted capacity-development programme.
According to Vince Crisostomo from Coalition Of Asia Pacific Regional Networks on HIV/AIDS (Seven Sisters), Thailand, "there is a lack of focus on building the capacity of young key affected populations in the Asia Pacific region, where the trend of the disease is becoming younger. In 2009, an estimated 41% of the new infections were among the young. Can we stop this from increasing? It is becoming very important to train the next generation of young leaders."
Gerard Ompad, youth leader from Philippines, lamented, "It is unfortunate that 90% of the resources are allocated for young people who are at low risk or no risk of HIV, leaving the young affected population with a meagre 10%. The result is that only one out of 20 young MSMs living with HIV in this region have access to HIV related care. 68% to 74% of sex workers in some Asian countries are below 25 years of age, and so are 25% of the injecting drug users. But where are the clean needles and syringes for them? Where is the oral opioid therapy and Hepatitis C treatment for them?"
Many young key affected voices said that it was unfair to discriminate against them because of their health status. They beseeched the governments and communities to fulfil their rights to proper education, information, free treatment, health care and emotional support. Korean participants said that gender diversity should be accepted in schools and that lesbians should be treated as normal human beings. Transgenders face double stigma when it comes to accessing HIV/AIDS and sexual and reproductive healthcare services. There was an appeal from a Fiji transgender sex worker to the governments, civil society, and international organizations on behalf of all sex workers of the Asia Pacific region, to decriminalize sex work and free it from violence, stigma and discrimination.
Several youth participants from various countries were very vocal about the need to infuse young blood in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Tung Nguyen and Tung Bui of Viet Nam said that young MSMs lack knowledge and skills on safe sex, HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections. So they need sex education, psychosocial support to deal with stigma and training for developing skills to make a living. Keeping in mind the empowerment and HIV prevention needs for MSM minors of Viet Nam, the Youth Dream Club Viet Nam has been established to target young MSMs below 20 years of age. Since June 2010 they have organized 30 training programmes and held 80 group discussions for the benefit of over 2000 MSMs. This has helped to light the passion and share the dream for an HIV/AIDS Free World.
Vermont Arvesu from Philippines felt that school children should be made aware of HIV/AIDS related information. Young audience are more receptive to information given by peers. So involve the youth. Emma spoke about the young people's perception in Indonesia. She said that stigma is rife in Indonesia. Young are easily exploited and abused, and often less willing to seek out services. They are able to assess risks but less likely to personalize them. They do not identify themselves as being part of older risk groups. Knowledge of services alone does not lead to behaviour change. Programmes should focus on reducing risks, building knowledge and practical skills and remaining connected with peers, family, and school.
Chanthy Mom from Cambodia said that there is a need to scale up services in a supportive atmosphere for drug users. There is discrimination within community when ex drug users reintegrate. They should be provided vocational skills while in rehab centres. The best thing would be to 'Transform drug users into drug educators.'
According to Gerard, the young generation should take up the leadership and ownership of the HIV programme, and become more than mere respondents of HIV related researches. He said: "We are the dawn of a new synergy for the continuity of HIV response. We are not only worth mentioning in your reports, declarations, or documents. We exist and we are very much alive. But are you ready to listen to us and take action with us?"
The diverse young voices from the entire Asia Pacific region request for one Unified Action Plan—Engage more young people and focus more on the capacity building of young key affected populations. Give them the opportunity to lead the battle against HIV. (CNS)
Shobha Shukla - CNS
(The author is the Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS) and is reporting on-site from 10th ICAAP, Busan, South Korea for CNS. She is a J2J Fellow of National Press Foundation (NPF) USA. She has worked earlier with State Planning Institute, UP and taught physics at India's prestigious Loreto Convent. Email: [email protected], website: http://www.citizen-news.org)