To be young and HIV free
© Photos courtesy of Achieve, Inc.
I am inspired by the many young HIV advocates I had an opportunity to work with, devoting their time, energy and ideas.
By Gudrun Nadoll
HIV and AIDS Specialist, UNICEF Philippines
Since 2005, UNICEF in the Philippines has been working towards promoting an AIDS-free generation by protecting the most vulnerable children and young people from HIV infection. Now more than ever, we need to work together towards zero new infections, with and for the young people of the Philippines.
My name is Gudrun Nadoll, a German national. I have been working in HIV and AIDS for 8 years in the UNICEF Country Offices of Nepal, Pakistan and the Philippines, and also in the UNICEF Regional Office for East Asia and the Pacific. In the Philippines, my work with UNICEF involves assisting national and local governments, as well as civil society and young people in developing HIV prevention policies and programs for young people and pregnant women, and in monitoring the results.
Working in the Philippines for the past four years, I am witness to the alarming trend of rising HIV infections, especially among young people. Consider these figures: the Philippines is 1 of 9 countries globally where new HIV cases have increased by over 25% since 2001. In 2012, there are 9 newly reported HIV cases in the country every day. 30% of these new HIV infections are among 15-24 year olds. If one looks at the DOH 2009 HIV surveillance data, it is no wonder young people are getting infected: among the 15-17 year old boys at increased HIV risk, only 24% were able to correctly answer five simple questions about HIV transmission and prevention . Besides, service access is still a challenge. Less than 1% of these young males at increased HIV risk ever had an HIV test, even if HIV-testing is recommended once or better twice every year for people with possible HIV exposure.
Observing the young peer educators from Puerto Princesa, as they go around at night to areas frequented by young people and counseling them on how to protect themselves from HIV.
An important aspect of UNICEF Philippines’ work is ensuring meaningful participation of young people. Young people have a very good sense of how to shape the HIV response so that it works for themselves and their friends, how to craft messages, and how to set up HIV learning sessions or HIV testing services. The answers are in the young people themselves to lead the way to stop the further spread of HIV, if they are empowered to do so. Empowered to understand what HIV is and is not. Empowered with skills not only to protect themselves but also to advocate and plan with local decision makers for a much stronger youth response which will make an impact. Empowered with opportunities to express their views and concerns. And with youth-friendly services, that they feel comfortable using, and that are near their homes.
Inspired by young people
I am inspired by the many young HIV advocates I had an opportunity to work with. So many volunteer their time to tackle the growing HIV problem. Online or in person, they tell their friends and peers about the virus, and encourage them to use the services available, for example HIV testing and counseling.
Young people need to be supported and empowered, not only to protect themselves from HIV, but to also advocate and plan with their local leaders for a stronger HIV response.
Photos courtesy of Achieve, Inc.
Just recently, one young peer educator shared his transformative experience when for the first time in his life he met a person living with HIV in one of the workshops he attended. After he heard the story shared to the group by an HIV positive person, he felt uncomfortable and afraid because like him, the young person living with HIV was young and gay, and he knew in his heart that he was doing what the other one did before he was infected with HIV. Today, he’s going out in the evenings as an HIV educator. He encourages other young people to undergo HIV testing if they have any doubt about their HIV status. Why is he doing this? Because he has been in the streets like them, and at risk of having HIV. He says he always wanted to help his friends prevent HIV infection, not only because they are young and at risk, but because they are his friends, his family and his community.
Successes and challenges
Since we have started the UNICEF HIV program in the Philippines, we have had successes in setting up a school-based campaign and community-based group learning sessions for young people at increased HIV risk, we were able to strengthen data availability on how HIV affects young people in the Philippines and which interventions work, and were able to assist stakeholders in developing a strategy framework tailored specifically to the Philippine context. But yes, there is still much more work to be done. From a child right’s perspective, it is not good enough to reach just some children and young people to help them stay safe from HIV. We must ensure wider coverage of quality services. HIV is preventable. Let’s all work together that no more young Filipino catches the virus. Let’s get to zero new infections in the Philippines.