Young HIV activists share personal stories and discuss best practices to fight stigma and discrimination

On the occasion of World Aids Day 2015, the Permanent Missions of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and Zambia co-hosted a side-event together with UNAIDS and NGO’s dance4life, CHOICE and the HIV Young Leaders Fund at UN Headquarters to reflect on best practices to fight stigma and discrimination experienced by young people living with HIV.

Each year on 1 December, World Aids Day is held for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV and AIDS. This event provided five young HIV activists from South Africa, Kenya, Mexico and the United States with a platform to share their personal trials and triumphs in living with HIV and working towards debunking the myths and negative associations surrounding it.

Yvonne Ochieng (24) told about her experience as a young girl in Kenya. When her peers found out several of her family members were HIV positive, they no longer wanted to talk or play with her because they believed she was contagious. Despite such pervasive prejudice, many young people affected by HIV have shown that they are not victims; instead, they have become front-runners in the HIV response. Ochieng explained how experiences like these encouraged her to look for creative ways to reach out to young people by using dance and theater to encourage them to talk openly about sexual health and rights.

Many who are HIV positive are able to tell stories like Ochieng’s. One of the key barriers to an effective response to HIV and AIDS continues to be the widespread stigma and discrimination suffered by people affected by HIV. In many countries they suffer both the burden of their disease and the consequential loss of their rights because of their presumed or known HIV status. In their family and communities, they are often excluded from social events and become the subject of gossip.

Underlying this continuing stigmatization is mostly the lack of knowledge about HIV transmission said Paige Rawl (20, USA). She shared her concern that many of her peers still believe the virus can be transmitted through saliva, despite the fact that age-appropriate and comprehensive education on sexual health topics is increasingly part of the school curriculum.

The young activists also engaged in a discussion with policy makers from member states, UN agencies and civil society about innovative and effective youth-serving and youth-led responses. They shared their views on best practices to increase HIV-related knowledge amongst their peers, to mobilize and politically empower young people affected by HIV, and to scale up successful efforts.

The international community recently adopted the bold and ambitious strategy to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030. According to Pablo Aguilera from the HIV Young Leaders Fund this requires that member states invest in equally bold strategies, especially at the community level. To fast-track change, UNAIDS is seeking to leverage new technologies and creative tools, for instance by developing an online advocacy platform that will allow youth to report anonymously on discrimination.

To make sure the potential of the biggest generation of young people is not lost as a result of harmful prejudice on HIV, positive role models like Ochieng, Rawl and Aguilera are key. Their voices need to be heard to change the discourse and bust the myths on HIV and AIDS.