Working together to overcome HIV/AIDS
By Cassandra Daniels
This article was contributed by Cassandra Daniels, 17, a young Malaysian woman who is taking a break from her academic studies to explore life and pursue her dream of working in music. In 2004 Cassandra spent one year in Brazil with the Rotary International Youth Exchange program. While in Brazil Cassandra helped local communities with HIV/AIDS awareness programs for children.
The UNICEF Malaysia Youth Roundtable was organised to provide a group of young Malaysians with a safe space to express their HIV/AIDS-related concerns; share their views and experiences concerning HIV/AIDS policies, programs and projects; and highlight specific youth observations of HIV/AIDS-related matters.
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, 2 February 2006 – “Everyday I wake up and I look around me. I am on my soft bed surrounded by four beautifully painted peach walls, with a roof over my head. I look outside my window and I see trees amidst tall skyscrapers and beautiful parks, with children playing on the swings and see-saws in their adorable childlike ways. And right downstairs, I know my happy, healthy family is waiting for me, ready to have a rich delicious breakfast just before we start our day. I see all this, and I know my life is perfect.
“Then I realise, somewhere else in the world some little girls and boys aren’t as lucky. They wake up to see that they’ve slept on the floor, and surrounding them are 10 other children, all sleeping on the floor as well. And outside their window, as far as the eye can see, they see poverty and disease. These children are orphaned by HIV/AIDS, and they live in a society unable to function. With no place to go and no one to turn to, their fate seems sealed.
“But we should know if HIV/AIDS is affecting so many other lives around the globe, then it must be happening here too. Of all the countries in East Asia and the Pacific, Malaysia has been cited as having the fifth-fastest growing HIV/AIDS epidemic. As of end 2004 close to 65,000 Malaysians have already been reported HIV-positive, and because of denial to test, this figure could be two to three times the reported number of cases. And when you work out the math, this alarmingly translates to the likelihood that one in 145 Malaysians is HIV-positive.
“These are some of the facts that I learnt during a recent UNICEF Malaysia Youth Roundtable, facilitated by popular TV hosts Celina Khor, Kartini Kamalul Ariffin and Rafidah Abdullah, who are also UNICEF Malaysia Ambassadors. Together with 19 other young Malaysian girls and boys, aged between 15 and 17 years old, I had an insightful discussion on the issues that young people face everyday regarding HIV/AIDS in Malaysia and the role we have in the fight against it.”
“But for us to be effective in our contributions, we need adults to appreciate that adolescence is the stage of development when young people become intrigued with sexual relations and experience sexual feelings. Some of us may develop a sense of invincibility, which could result in risky behavioural experimentation, particularly when it comes to sexual contact, and sometimes with drug use. For us to remain free of HIV and make a positive difference to the course of this epidemic, we must be given accurate information that is appropriate to our age, as well as the skills to resist pressures and cope with the realities of growing up.
“Today more information about effective HIV prevention is known than ever before. However, the new numbers of HIV infection among young adults and teenagers in Malaysia and around the world suggests that the inconsistency between what is known about prevention and what is actually done for protection needs to be addressed. In Malaysia HIV/AIDS is still considered a taboo subject among so many families because it deals with sex and drugs, topics which adults find difficult to talk about with young people. Tragically, the deafening silence around AIDS and life skills-based education has resulted in the increasing rate of HIV infection among young people like me.”
The power of knowledge
“Knowledge is power, and power gives us the ability to protect ourselves. As a young person, I admit that we need to contribute towards the positive growth of our society – and that each and every one of us has a role to play. But as young people, we need the help of adults because we can’t fight this battle alone. Educated youth today will ensure more empowered future generations. If we work together with adults to educate ourselves on how this disease can be prevented, then we can stop HIV/AIDS from causing more damage than it already has – one little step at a time.
“AIDS is now more than a quarter century old. With the growing number of new infections and deaths every year, it feels as if little effort has been put into responding to it. The disease has killed 20 million people worldwide. Last year alone more than half a million children died because of it. Everyday it destroys the lives of thousands all over the world – children and young people just like me – young and full of life with what should have been bright futures ahead of them. How many more must we let suffer before decisive action is taken to end this crisis? Unless we do something about it now, young people like me as well as future generations will be doomed to live a life riddled with HIV forever.
“But first we must all understand that HIV/AIDS is not a disaster waiting to happen. It is a disaster happening right in front of us.
“During the UNICEF Youth Roundtable my peers and I took our first step on a journey that will ensure we do all that we can to make sure we never get infected with HIV. We also committed ourselves to helping those who are infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. We now invite adults to join us in ensuring our safe journey.”