PRESS CONFERENCE BY UNAIDS AND UNICEF
Young AIDS activists urged the international community to involve young people in the fight against HIV/AIDS during a press conference today at Headquarters by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). Participants were: Executive Director of UNICEF, Carol Bellamy; Executive Director of UNAIDS, Peter Piot; Inviolata Mmbwavi from Kenya; Anick Supplice from Haiti; and Miodraga Stefanovska from the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
Ms. Bellamy said the plan of action to be adopted at the special session on children contained four areas of focus: promoting healthy lives; access to and completion of quality education; protection of children against violence and abuse; and the fight against HIV/AIDS, an item which had not been included in the outcome of the World Summit for Children in 1990.
Mr. Piot said that growing up today was totally different from what it was 20 years ago because of AIDS. Every day, 6,000 young people were infected with HIV/AIDS, and half of the total newly infected people were young. Also, every day 6,000 children were orphaned because of parents dying from the disease. AIDS was really an epidemic of the young. However, in every community where the epidemic was brought under control, it happened first in young people, whether it was in Cambodia, Brazil or Uganda. Success was possible. The biggest scandal, if not crime, was that young people were denied the information, the right to know, and the support that would make them grow up in a world much safer for themselves. Regardless of the stage of the epidemic, young people must be at the centre of the response to AIDS, because that would make the response sustainable and stop the epidemic.
Ms. Mmbwavi of Kenya said testing HIV positive when young was the worst tragedy that could happen to a young person. Young people faced the worst stigma because society expected them not to have sex. They would always be blamed and seen as careless and immoral, and be made to feel ashamed and guilty. That increased the fear surrounding HIV/AIDS among young people. She appealed to the international community to involve young people meaningfully in the prevention of HIV/AIDS. Young infected people often were afraid to join support groups because they were dominated by elders. She appealed to UNICEF, even though she was impressed by the organization, to "give it a stretch" and involve young people more meaningfully in prevention activities so that they could have their own programmes, run and led by themselves.
Ms. Supplice of Haiti said in her country, where 61 per cent of the population was under 25 and which was second in infection rates after sub-Saharan countries, HIV/AIDS among the young was one of the major challenges. Young people, however, had been able to get support not only from international agencies such as UNICEF and UNAIDS, but also from the government which had established a national strategic plan in the fight against HIV/AIDS with a huge component on prevention among young people. They also got support from the private sector and local and international non-governmental organizations. Partnerships had been strengthened. The "Youth for Youth" strategy had been implemented, using young and informed people to send messages in schools and communities to other young people. She
asked the international community and the international organizations to help young people to be more active in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Ms. Stefanovska of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedoniasaid her country had a low infection rate, with only 59 people infected. It was, therefore, a great battle to convince children of the dangers of the epidemic. Inter-generational communication was the biggest problem in that regard. Communication between children was one of the most important factors in the fight against HIV/AIDS. The country had a high number of intravenous drug users, which was one of the greatest risk factors for exposure to the disease. She would love that number to be lowered so the risk factor could be diminished. She also desired that there be AIDS education in schools and that teachers and parents speak openly about sex, HIV/AIDS and intravenous drug use. "Breaking the silence is one of the most important things that children can do to help in prevention of the spread of HIV/AIDS", she said, asking UNICEF to continue support for its office in her country, so that the important "Right to Know" project could be continued.
Asked about the Bush Administration's policy of urging abstinence as the only sure way to prevent infection, Ms. Supplice said in her country young people knew of the importance of abstinence, they knew that HIV was there. But if young people could not abstain from sex, they should have the correct information to protect themselves.
Asked about the language in the outcome document, both Mr. Piot and
Ms. Bellamy said that the language on HIV/AIDS was identical to that in the outcome of the HIV/AIDS special session held a year ago.
In answer to another question, Ms. Mmbwavi said she was looking for programmes implemented and run by young people, but advised by the international community. Young people should put on the table what they wanted. Just imposing research papers and other documents on young people to change their behaviour would not work. Moreover, many were semi-literate and could not read them anyway.
Asked how the young AIDS activists had become involved in that work,
Ms. Mmbwavi said she had become involved because she showed interest and wanted to do it. The Government had given her an opportunity to get involved. She sat on the National Aids Control Council which had gotten some funds from the World Bank. The kind of proposals coming from communities on how to spend that money were amazing, she said. Even though people were often semi-literate, there is a vision there. Young people were doing a lot of things in communities.
Ms. Supplice said she started out at a young age working on youth issues and found that whenever she met other young people, the topic of HIV/AIDS always came up. She realized that if she wanted to make a difference, the best way to do that was helping in HIV/AIDS prevention programmes. It was interesting to know that young people in Haiti really wanted to get the information and to get involved.
Ms. Stefanovska said that in second grade she had been very impressed by slides her mother had brought from London on the subject of HIV/AIDS, which were terrifying. Years later, her generation started talking about sex and the normal things that came about during puberty so that the issue of HIV/AIDS came up again. When an organization was established to fight HIV/AIDS, she joined, hoping that, being part of the "army of children battling HIV/AIDS", she could make a difference in her country.