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The AIDS epidemic poses one of the most formidable challenges to the world at large. In 2008, young people accounted for 40 per cent of all new HIV infections in people aged 15 years and older. Of the 33.4 million people living with HIV around the world, 4.9 million are between the ages of 15 and 24.

Experience over the past decade has demonstrated how to address HIV among young people.

In countries with concentrated epidemics, programmes and resources must focus on youth who engage in risky behaviours, including injecting drugs, selling sex, and having unprotected sex. In countries with generalised epidemics, where the general population is at risk, all vulnerable youth, particularly young women, need to be targeted. Evidence shows that sex education helps in containing the spread of HIV by delaying the onset of sexual activity and encouraging safer sexual behaviour. Slowing the high rate of new infections in young girls in Zambia, a key element of the epidemic there, is urgently being addressed by several levels of leadership throughout the country.

"Three decades into this crisis, let us set our sights on achieving the "three zeros" -- zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths." Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's message on World AIDS day

Girls are at risk for several reasons, including their economic dependence on men or fear of violence from them. In these cases, no matter how well educated they are about the risks, it is extremely difficult for them to say no to sex. In Zambia, there is also pressure on women to demonstrate their fertility, so they do not use condoms. Furthermore, a cultural trend for inter-generational relationships also puts girls at risk. Statistics show that HIV prevalence peaks in men between the ages of 29 and 34 while for in women it is between 15 and 24 years.

Addressing this issue is Women for Change, a UNAIDS partner and gender-focused NGO. It works with traditional male leaders in Zambia, conducting education around relationships as well as mediation skills in community disputes.

Raguwaran is 17 and lives in a village in India’s Tamil Nadu state. Ten years ago his father died of AIDS. His mother is HIV-positive. Having faced stigma and discrimination as a result, Raguwaran became motivated to help others. That desire to help led him to volunteer at the Positive Living Centre.

"First my father had HIV. He was a lorry driver and he had an extra-marital affair. He contracted HIV/AIDS and died. Two years later my mother was tested and found that she was HIV-positive too.

An HIV+ girl in a bed at the Kangasati Health Centre in Uganda.

An HIV+ girl in a bed at the Kangasati Health Centre in Uganda.

"Because my parents were positive I wanted a test myself. I went to the clinic and was tested but diagnosed negative.

"I wanted to help other families like mine and that’s when I involved myself with the Positive Living Centre as a volunteer."

Raguwaran’s first job as a volunteer was educating community members about proper condom use, and placing condom boxes in the community. This project was a success, and helped change the attitudes and behaviour of people in his area. Now he is using his experience and training to motivate others to seek counselling or to find out their status.

"I work with youth groups and young people, raising awareness about HIV/AIDS. I go to their houses and teach them about HIV/AIDS. If a person is suffering from HIV/AIDS his family may not support him and he may be discriminated against in his own community.

"They become frightened of telling anyone and even going to be tested is difficult because they fear the results. If people were given the right counselling they might go.

"The government should start focusing on spreading awareness in schools and colleges. The government should provide treatment for people living with HIV and it should be done quickly."