Brian Ackerman is an intern at Advocates for Youth and a junior at the George Washington University, majoring in International Affairs.
I always shudder when I hear that young people aged 15-24 account for over 40% of new HIV infections. At 20 years old, I am halfway through college and focused on the youthful experience of "finding myself" and creating my future. I hope HIV never has to factor into my equation, but knowing that it is a daily reality for my peers around the world is an eerie truth. Helping young people protect themselves while still balancing the rest of the costs and needs of the HIV/AIDS epidemic is increasingly difficult.
This was reiterated for me at recent briefing, "A European Perspective on the Future of Global AIDS Programs: A Conversation with Five AIDS Ambassadors," hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the Center for Global Development. The event began with each ambassador speaking for a few minutes about the commitment their country has made toward fighting global AIDS. Since coming to work as an intern on international issues at Advocates for Youth, I've been exposed to much of the rhetoric about the flow of aid aimed at fighting infectious diseases in the developing world, but the commentary from these ambassadors was both refreshingly honest and difficult to hear.
Sigrun Mogedal, Norway's AIDS Ambassador, left me with goose-bumps as she reminded all of us that beneath everything else, stopping AIDS is about power. The statement was simple, but for me, it was the most articulate explanation of the reality of global AIDS. To successfully turn around the pandemic, governments, institutions, and people must become empowered. Forget the heart-warming speeches about "being the future of the world"; those most affected by AIDS, young people, are not empowered. We exist in an "in-between universe" — a place where we are still dependent and subject to the decisions of the adults in our lives while, simultaneously, eager to make our own independent decisions.
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Paul Bekkers, the Dutch AIDS Ambassador, reminded us of the tragedy of disempowered youth, especially young women. He relayed an all too familiar story about an adolescent girl in sub-Saharan Africa who remained abstinent until her marriage to an older, sexually promiscuous man. She contracted HIV from her husband and subsequently, passed HIV to their child. At the root of this tragedy is the reality of unequal power. While the target population would seem to be young women, Ambassador Bekkers noted, after a discussion on gender, that the focus must also be on educating young men to change the power dynamics of relationships. In the same sense, for young people to be empowered to prevent transmission, adults must recognize the often disempowered nature of being young.
In a breakout discussion on prevention with Lennarth Hjelmaker, Sweden's AIDS Ambassador, the issue of empowerment dominated the conversation. In order to have successful prevention programs, those who have power, at the global, national, and local community levels, must be willing to alter the power relationships to which they are accustomed. No easy task, to say the least. Considering HIV in these terms, it is no surprise that over 40% of all new infections are among young people aged 15-24. Societies around the world are apprehensive about ceding any control to a demographic group defined by its inexperience.
After spending the day with these Ambassadors, it seems to me that the underlying problem is that, while we have taken the first step in identifying the problem fueling HIV/AIDS, we have yet to develop a cohesive plan to effectively resolve it. Yet, I came away from this discussion with a sense of hope, courage, and opportunity. Yes, young people today are faced with the challenge of the AIDS pandemic. But our experience with this disease provides us with the opportunity to develop answers and solutions to the questions that those making the decisions have yet to discover.