AIDS 2012As momentum builds for an advocacy effort that pools resources, information and expertise in order to curtail—and eventually end—the HIV epidemic, one group feels like they may be left behind: youth. Young people around the world face singular challenges in the changing HIV epidemic yet, more often than not, feel ignored by the adults at the table. Youth leaders from around the world gathered Monday, July 23, at a session during the XIX International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2012) to answer one question:  What can youth leaders contribute to the expert work being done around the globe?

A Different Perspective

According to Shavon Davis, a youth leader from Jamaica, teens and young adults have a very different life than what others might imagine, filled with different barriers, notably homelessness, violence, and unplanned pregnancies. And teens in her country, like teens across the world, have a different view on HIV.

“There was a time when HIV was seen as a matter of most concern,” Davis said. “It seems those days are behind us. Nowadays many young people see themselves as untouchable as far is HIV is concerned. The truth is that young people in my community are more worked up about early pregnancy than HIV.”

And though safe sex and HIV prevention campaigns surround youth around the world, their message has been muted.

“I think many things that are being done have been done for a long time without a fresh approach,” Davis said. “We have become comfortable and other issues have taken priority.”

So how can prevention and advocacy efforts reach youth?

Davis suggest that instead of trying to instill a sense of urgency or emergency about the HIV epidemic, prevention efforts should instead embody a whole-person or holistic approach. Instead of talking at youth, she said, efforts should center around building a space where youth can talk among themselves, sharing information and stories, leaning on each other when necessary. Such initiatives, she added, should take a look outside of sexual behavior and into a youth’s whole life, including job training and social issues.

“To focus on HIV alone is not enough,” Davis said.

A New Partnership

Youth leaders are prepared to offer a brand new type of partnership to established advocates. According to Phillip Palmos, the executive director of the Youth AIDS Filipinas Alliance, it’s time to join forces.

“The issue of the generation gap has long been acknowledged,” Palmos said. “Of who should approach or who is afraid of who is a tale as old as time, we are entering the phase where the two parties should entice each other to come aboard.”

According to Palmos, what youth advocates are doing is trying to break cultural and social stigma and use new and powerful messages to reach otherwise high-risk groups. But those efforts should be coupled with wise leadership.

“One thing that cannot be taken away from young people is their hunger to try different things,” Palmos said. “We need our wiser counterparts to help us and to be on our side as were now ready to take up the challenge in leading the response the way forward.”

Equality and Access

According to Samuel Kissi, a member of the Youth coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights and part of the Curious Mind Broadcast in Accra, Ghana, what youth leaders need is equality.

In order to be effective leaders, Kissi said, youth leaders must feel like they are equal to other advocates.

“We spend so much time asking for a seat at the table, wasting time and energy asking to be let in, that when we get to the table we often forget what we’re asking for,” Kissi said. “And in the times we are invited and our input is sought, it’s not given the weight it deserves.”

He also highlighted the need to invest in today’s youth so they could be tomorrow’s leaders.

“We need capacity building,” Kissi said. “We need to invest in building young people’s skills so that they can learn how to effectively contribute, how organizations can work and how to get and use investments.”

Finally, Kissi highlighted the need for institutions to build in mechanisms in which young allies can partner up and work with established institutions to get new messages out to youth.