Youth Activism at AIDS2012: Leading the Way to an AIDS-Free Generation


Part of RH Reality Check’s coverage of the International AIDS Conference, 2012.

Tens of thousands gather this week for the 19th International AIDS Conference in Washington, DC.  Thousands of young leaders and activists in the fields of health care, public policy, and education are among them, all committed to keeping up the fight until we reach an AIDS-free generation.

Millennials represent the first generation that has never known a world without HIV and AIDS, and I fully believe that they will be the generation of leaders to finally and decisively turn the tide against this global pandemic.

One might expect resignation from Millennials that HIV and AIDS will always be a part of the global landscape – after all, for them it always has been – but, in fact, the opposite is true. For the first time in decades, we can finally see a path to a world with no new HIV infections, and young people are frustrated that our society has met this challenge with neither the full force of our financial, educational, and scientific resources, nor political will.

They have every right to be impatient and angry.

HIV and AIDS continues to disproportionately affect young people. In the United States, an estimated one-third of new HIV infections are among young people ages 13-29. Globally, young people ages 25 and under experience 40 percent of new HIV infections.

It is no surprise that those most vulnerable to many of society’s ills are also the most vulnerable to HIV.  Young women in sub-Saharan Africa are up to eight times as likely to be HIV positive as men.  A young Black gay man in the U.S. has a 1-in-4 chance of being infected by age 25. In the U.S. and around the world, young men who have sex with men face stigma and discrimination and also are at high risk of HIV.

Despite the devastating impact of this plague, Millennials are pushing for bold steps forward.

They believe government should play a stronger role:  63 percent of Millennials believe the government should spend more on HIV and AIDS vs 47 percent of Boomers and Seniors.  Half want public schools to do more to help solve the problem. And they want schools to provide comprehensive sex education that covers information about contraception and condoms.

Millennials also are taking responsibility to protect their own health: globally, HIV prevalence among young people is falling in 16 of the 21 countries most affected by HIV – a decline that has coincided with decreases in sexual risk-taking among young people. But, a lack of resources continues to fuel the epidemic among youth, including here in the United States.

Millennials are mobilizing their peers to pressure governments, corporations, and nonprofits to commit to an AIDS-free generation by increasing investments, shifting resource allocation, and garnering political will. And, not content with the pace of change, young leaders are creating new institutions and movements of their own.

As the oldest Millennials turn 30 this year, they are on the cusp of leading an even more profound cultural shift. Already, half of Millennials want more information on talking about HIV with kids, and they are beginning to raise their own children with a new set of values around HIV and AIDS. As Millennials ascend to positions of power and leadership in society, and as they become parents themselves, they have a unique opportunity to empower a widespread cultural shift regarding sex, sexuality, and sexual health.

Last week, young activists and leaders from around the world joined together in Washington, D.C., as YouthForce 2012. After more than a year of planning – nearly all of it led by youth activists themselves – these young people convened prior to the International AIDS Conference to finalize their policy platform, coordinate their advocacy efforts for the conference, and mobilize to ensure that young people’s voices, perspectives, and ideas shape the outcomes of the IAC itself.

But these young people cannot do it alone. We must have the courage to stand beside them to fight for societal recognition that young people have the right to accurate and complete sexual health information and confidential, affordable health care services; that all young people deserve our respect – and a seat at the table – for the role they are playing to end the pandemic; and that the U.S., as a leader in the global fight against HIV, has the responsibility to ensure that those receiving U.S. funds domestically and abroad provide young people with all of the tools they need to safeguard their sexual and reproductive health. Yet, all too often, young people are ignored or caught in the crosshairs of controversy and politics. Government policies and funding restrictions often stand in the way: in the United States the percent of youth receiving HIV education in schools has declined since 2005, while around the world only one-third of young people have comprehensive knowledge of HIV. Condoms are highly effective at preventing HIV, but in the United States and abroad, restrictions are placed on providing information about and distributing condoms to sexually active youth. Recent studies have found that early treatment of HIV reduces the risk of transmission by 96 percent, yet the vast majority of countries – including the United States – have no comprehensive plan to ensure that people living with HIV have access to the life-saving treatment they need. Our current approaches are too often limited in scope, short-sighted, and politically safe – and young people are paying the price. We must do better. Only by fully investing in young people – in their health, their education, and their leadership – can we create the “generational firewall” it will take to truly reach an AIDS-free generation and ensure young people’s overall well-being.

Which is why Advocates for Youth, along with eleven other founding partners, announce the creation of National Youth HIV & AIDS Awareness Day and call on President Obama, Congress, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to formally recognize this important day in prioritizing young people in the fight against HIV and AIDS. April 10, 2013 will mark the first annual nationwide observance of the day. Each year, National Youth HIV & AIDS Awareness Day will provide youth activists, public health organizations, and their allies an opportunity to hold our leaders accountable for realizing an AIDS-free generation.

Millennials are deeply committed to building an AIDS-free generation. They have the power and the will to prevent HIV. We can all help make this dream a reality. If we are smart enough, determined enough, and courageous enough to work alongside them.

To join the call of youth activists for President Obama, Congress, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to officially recognize National Youth HIV & AIDS Awareness Day please visit: www.AdvocatesforYouth.org/YouthAIDSDay.

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