What Does Youth Participation in HIV/AIDS Strategy Mean? Collaboration.

Brian Ackerman

Thanks to youth participation in the the 2008 UN High Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS, the Civil Society Declaration emphasized youth vulnerability and young people's concerns.

32 young people from 20 different countries met in New York on Sunday, June 8, at the Progressive Youth Caucus, gathering to discuss our
strategy for advocacy at the 2008 UN High-Level Meeting on HIV and AIDS.
question was on my mind throughout the day’s sessions: What does meaningful youth participation mean? And if we can define
it, how can we translate it into terms that are useful for policy makers?

our conversation, Caucus members outlined our concerns with current youth participation
in public policy decision making. A quandary arose. How do we lobby for meaningful participation when language has already
been written into official documents such as the 2001 Declaration of
Commitment on HIV and AIDS and the 2006 Political Declaration? Moreover, language emphasizing the need
for meaningful youth participation was included in the 2001 and
2006 Declarations, meaning that our concerns stemmed not so much from
poor language but from poor implementation. Some of us could even
cite instances from our countries in which young people had been given
a "voice" in HIV/AIDS policy making, but a voice that fell on deaf

I noted a theme underlying this conversation for those of us wanting
to participate in the political processes that govern our lives: as
young people, we seek political space and recognition without becoming
token representatives of the three billion members of the world’s
population that are under the age of 25.

21 years old, I am a young person. I am fortunate to be working
at an organization that values youth involvement in its decision-making
and representation but, three weeks out of college, I feel younger than
ever around my more experienced colleagues in the international policy
field. This is perhaps one of the greatest challenges youth face.
Sometimes the feeling is similar to just arriving in another country — I
may have studied the language, the culture, the people, but until I
have experience, it is difficult to communicate and feel comfortable.

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the caucus we resolved to advocate for the following points:

  • Ensure access to
    comprehensive sexuality education
  • Address HIV in the
    context of other sexual and reproductive health needs
  • Take positive steps
    to promote and protect young people’s rights
  • Make health services
    more accessible to young people
  • Disaggregate data
    by age
  • Invest in youth

These points may not seem strikingly
revolutionary or surprising as a contribution from a group of progressive
young people and their organizations, but they reflect a commitment
from youth to work in partnership with policy makers and governments,
to design realistic pathways to achieve the ever-distant universal access
targets. The notion of youth-adult partnership in achievement
of the universal access targets underpinned many discussions I had with
other young attendees at the conference. If we expect our countries
to achieve universal access targets by 2010, we expect ourselves and
our peers to be active participants in galvanizing social action to
successfully realize the targets.

to this underlying theme at the progressive youth caucus is the final
point in the aforementioned list: "Invest in youth leadership."
True youth participation can be facilitated through mentor relationships
between experienced leaders in policy and civil society with young people.

drafting of the Civil Society Declaration, the document which attempted
to distill the key messages of member organizations of Civil Society
in attendance at the UN meeting, is a good example of experienced members
of the policy community reaching out to young people to ensure their
inclusion at the highest levels of messaging and decision making.

The organizers of the meeting arranged to write the declaration sent
out a broad invitation to youth attendees at the conference to ensure
their participation in the messaging discussion. During the meeting,
young people were leaders in each of the working groups assigned to
draft various pieces of the declaration.

a result of our inclusion and full participation at that meeting, the
official Civil Society Declaration mentioned:

  • young people as
    a vulnerable population in need of programs specific to their needs
  • the unique vulnerability
    of young women (this was highlighted in a clause noting the feminization
    of the epidemic)
  • a re-affirmation
    of the need for the disaggregation of epidemiological data by age and


I highlight these pieces of
language not to harp on "wins" for the youth community but to show
that, through meaningful collaboration between adults and young people,
substantial results can be achieved in drafting policy and messaging
that truly reflects the needs of young people. The Civil Society
Declaration and the Declaration of the Progressive Youth Caucus were
both delivered to the General Assembly President at the end of the High
Level Meeting.

terms of effecting policy change and urging implementation, the 2008
High Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS was a challenging experience. Many
of us in Civil Society were unsure about our role and our capacity to
influence the outcomes of the meeting. Fortunately, however, a
very forward-thinking concentration of young people and adults in Civil
Society were able to collaborate to produce strong and clear messages
for our country delegations to take into account.

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