Young and Restless Youth Leadership: My Generation’s Efforts
Shevon Davis is an adolescent from Trench Town, Kingston. He spoke at the International AIDS Conference on July 23rd in Washington D.C in a session entitled: Young and Restless Youth Leadership. Shevon spoke about his generation in the age of HIV and AIDS:
Good morning everyone. It is so good to be here this morning to talk about how my generation is dealing with HIV prevention.
I have come here from Jamaica, where I live in Trench Town, an inner-city community in the capital of Kingston.
You may have heard about Trench Town from the music of the great Bob Marley, because this is where he lived and spent his early years as a musician.
A lot has changed in Trench Town since the days when Bob lived there. But it is still a rough place to grow up. Poverty is a serious issue. Some people can’t find food to eat and clothes to wear. People do all kinds of things to survive. Young people have to learn to hustle to help their mothers, fathers and grandmothers make ends meet. Often they don’t have their parents around to guide them in a positive way.
Life is hard in so many ways in my community – and in other inner-city communities too – and these hardships have a lot to do with the choices we make as young people.
Getting caught in gang violence, people having sex for money, dropping out of school, becoming a teen mother or father because of early and unprotected sex – these things are a reality every day.
So with all these challenges, how do young people feel about HIV?
What are they doing about HIV prevention?
I asked 20 people in my community about their status and when they last got tested. Out of the 20, everyone told me they were HIV negative. Despite this, only three of them got tested in the last 12 months and surprisingly 4 persons had never even been tested before.
There was a time when HIV was seen as a matter for much concern, but it seems those days are behind us. Nowadays many young people – like the ones I surveyed – see themselves as “untouchable” as far as HIV is concerned. The truth is that young people in my community are more worried about early pregnancy than HIV or other sexually transmitted infections. We are afraid of the public shame of an early pregnancy; especially the girls.
HIV is mostly seen as a condition that can be treated; if you can get the drugs that reduce the symptoms so that no one knows you have it. And young people know that you can live a long and healthy life with HIV. Thankfully, for those who are positive, this is true. But in Trench Town, like in many other places, this means that young people don’t care as much as they should about HIV prevention.
This is a major problem since having multiple partners is a norm for young people in Jamaica. There is pressure to have sex everywhere. A lot of the pressure is from older men and women. And it is often harder for boys. Having one sexual partner in my community, and I dare say throughout the country, is a huge task for a young man. It is encouraged and expected that you will have many partners before you are ready to “settle down”. It is a sign of manhood for a man to be sexually active with more than one girl.
In Jamaica, the mean age for first sexual intercourse is 13 years for boys and 15 years for girls. These practices are not new. It is the norm.
How can we take on these challenges and make the breakthrough we need for my generation?
Jamaica’s Ministry of Health has done good work to ensure that condom use advertisements are on radio and television. However, many young people see these ads and they don’t make much of a difference in their thinking or their behaviours. They seem to have gotten tired of this message. How can we make condom use more important to them?
I think many of the things that are being done have been done for a long time, without a fresh approach. Because of this, it seems that there is no urgency anymore. Young people like me know that HIV will be around for a long time and with medication available, it is no longer treated as an emergency.
Therefore, my generation has accepted this as the truth. We have become comfortable and other issues have taken priority in our lives.
One of the first things we have to do in getting young people to care is to open up and talk. When I participated in an HIV prevention intervention in my community, it made me really think about the risks of becoming infected and how to lower them. I was able to talk through the issues with other young people who come from the same place and face the same issues that I face.
I got the chance to feel as if I was a part of something. I got a chance to hear that my friends were having similar struggles as I was. I got a chance to hear how they felt about a number of things, including but not limited to HIV. We simply did not talk to each other about these things in everyday conversation.
For young people, the importance of having the space to talk through the issues with people we relate to cannot be overlooked. The space does not have to be a workshop or a building. There are already places where we gather naturally, like on corners – but often there is no-one there to guide a discussion on HIV.
Remember too that talk is not only face to face for us. More and more, we are talking online at Internet cafes and on smart phones, which are very popular. There is a lot of unsafe activity that happens in these spaces and there is no way for parents to know or police these interactions.
Creating opportunities for interaction and real participation so that those who plan FOR us can actually plan WITH us. This is still important. But our participation has to be meaningful – and not as we say in Jamaica – “a bag a mouth”, which means there is all talk, and no action. Our engagement should be on-going and when necessary, it should be publicised so that others in the same situations realize that we are, in fact, part of the discussion or solution.
My experience has taught me that there is also a need to get condoms into more non-traditional outlets in communities, where young people can access them without judgement.
Very importantly, to reduce the risk of infection, young people need skills training and jobs. So to focus on HIV alone is not enough. There must be a more comprehensive or “whole person” approach to HIV prevention.
I now feel empowered to bring information to my peers. I know there is much more work to be done in my community. I know that there are a lot of young people who may be HIV positive and not know it. There are also a lot who are thinking of becoming or they are already sexually active, who have not thought about the risks involved. Because of how much I learned through the intervention in Trench Town, I am happy for the opportunity to be part of the solution.
I thank you for your kind attention.