|© UNICEF Nigeria/2005/ Yahaya|
|Eunice Aghete, a member of the organizing committee of the Youth Forum, and Esse Nsed of the Positive Development Foundation protesting against the cancellation of youth presentations at ICASA 2005 in Abuja.|
By Yves Willemot
ABUJA, Nigeria, 5 December 2005 – Medard came from Benin to the 14th International Conference on HIV/AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections in Africa (ICASA) with high hopes.
He was one of 270 youth delegates from 29 countries in Africa who were invited to participate in the preparatory Youth Forum, held from 1-3 December by UNICEF, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA ) and Plan International. They prepared themselves to present recommendations at the opening plenary session on 5 December.
Fourteen-year-old Medard has been educating himself about HIV/AIDS for several years now. His father died of AIDS three years ago and his mother is HIV-positive. While Medard himself is not infected, the disease has had a dramatic impact on his life.
He has been actively involved in a local youth organization of children aged 8 to 17 infected or affected by HIV/AIDS. He is still is afraid of being outspoken about his family situation because he fears being stigmatized – and avoids speak about the HIV-status of his mother at his school. “Children and young people of infected parents are too often set aside in Benin. People tend to avoid any contact withy them. For me, fighting stigmatization is the priority when fighting HIV/AIDS,” he said.
He found out about the ICASA meeting via the internet and wrote an article about his experiences. The organisers invited him to attend the conference, which gave him a chance to connect with other youth affected by or involved in preventing HIV/AIDS.
Worldwide more than 12 million children have been orphaned by AIDS, the overwhelming majority of them in Africa. Every day 6,000 young people between 15 and 24 years old are infected by HIV/AIDS. Half of the 3 million new infections that occurred in Africa last year concerned young people.
Eunice Aghete, 20, from Lagos, Nigeria, also attended the conference. She has been actively involved in HIV/AIDS prevention programs since she started high school. It was great to work together with young people form all over Africa to prepare ourselves to the ICASA meeting,” Eunice said. “At the Youth Forum we shared experiences and exchanged knowledge and ideas. We worked together in order to speak with one voice at the Conference and to make sure our voice would be heard.”
The young people committed themselves to become even more actively involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS and to be role models by living positive and healthy lifestyles.
UNICEF informed the young delegates about the global campaign UNITE FOR CHILDREN UNITE AGAINST AIDS. “Young people stressed the need for more programs in rural areas. A lot of them said they wanted to be recruited by AIDS organizations after having been involved for years on a voluntary basis in prevention programs. The young people told us to use our experience to scale up the programs against HIV/AIDS,” said Jasper Oei, UNICEF project officer on youth participation and one of the organizers of the Youth Forum.
But Medard and the other youth never had the chance to present their recommendations. Although they were promised a slot at the opening plenary session, this was later cancelled . Some young people had a silent protest at the entrance of the conference hall, their mouths covered with tape.
Twenty-five-year-old David Maundu from Nairobi said, “It shows how much young people are still not being taken seriously. At the plenary meeting we heard presentations by political leaders, representatives of organizations, and academics. Most stakeholders got the opportunity to express themselves, why not the young people?”