Thirty-two percent of Papua New Guinea’s population is aged between 10 and 24 years: that is two million people. Although often acknowledged as the embodiment of the country’s future, the face of future disparities is what manifests so clearly when one reviews the status of this age group. This group is largely denied the opportunity of continuing education and access to income and assets. They have little voice and opportunities to express their views and opinions. Most services are not young people-friendly. They possess inadequate psychosocial life skills to protect themselves from the major threats to their human rights. The HIV/AIDS epidemic is generalized - with nearly 40,000 people already HIV-infected.
The 10-24 year age group is especially vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. Recent research released by the Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research, 'Askim na save' shows that the sexual debut of the overall population of people who sell or exchange sex in Port Moresby is 16 and over a quarter of those questioned reported having sex before the age of 15. Also of grave concern is that 42 percent of sex workers are reported to be young students. This evidence, together with knowlede that the median age of cumulative reported cases is 26 for girls and the importance of programming for youth has been awarded in the National HIV Strategy calls for concerted effort and action to be taken. With little action, it will grow exponentially to erase and reverse all the development gains made thus far.
Sadly, fear of the disease often outweighs love and compassion for people living with HIV/AIDS. Discrimination is widespread. Young victims are often left in hospitals or left to fend for themselves despite their failing health.
HIV/AIDS is just one of the many risks, which Papua New Guinea’s young people face. Many young people face a life of violence within families and in society. Tom’s story shows some of the other challenges young people face. Tom, a school drop-out – because the parents could not afford fees – got into conflict with the law, by being involved in a fight. When the police found him, they inflicted severe injury on him, held him in remand for six months before he appeared in an adult court and later sentenced to 13 years in custody. The damage done is irreparable.
The growth and prosperity of Papua New Guinea will be measured from the extent of young people’s participation in continuing education, their command of life-saving psychosocial skills and their access to income and assets. Young people should be a partner and resource in development, with their voices and opinions heard and incorporated into long-term development planning. The Government of Papua New Guinea, UNICEF and partners are focusing on building capacities to support young people to develop their full potential and for their parents to support them with compassion and understanding.