A week ago, the 9th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP), came to a closing after five intense days of plenary sessions, abstract presentations, discussions, agreements and disagreements on the most effective way to move forward with response to the HIV and AIDS epidemic in the region. Present at the ICAAP were also about 100 young people representing over twenty countries under the banner of the Bali Youth Force – an alliance of local and international youth organization and young people from Asia and the Pacific, working together to advocate for the rights and health of young people at the second largest AIDS forum in the world (ICAAP). This was first time in the history of ICAAP in which young people from across Asia and the Pacific mobilized in such a manner to voice the issues affecting lives and health of young people, ask for commitments and accountability from their representative and make commitments of their own in the fight against HIV and AIDS. The Bali Youth Force set up a commitment desk at the ICAAP site calling for advocates, leaders, decision makers, and governments to make commitments to and hold their promises of working with and investing in young people in order to lessen the impact of HIV and AIDS amongst young people.
Young advocates present at the pre-ICAAP meeting and the ICAAP followed up on the theme of the congress “strengthening networks and empowering people” calling for meaningful youth participation and reminding that it is the right of young people to participate in programs and policy making processes that affect their lives. Ways of strengthening youth participation include supporting and strengthening youth-adult partnerships; strengthening alliances amongst young activist themselves; saying no to tokenism; providing opportunities for capacity building and increasing funding for youth-led and youth-serving initiatives; applying human rights principles to all HIV responses; implementation of comprehensive sexuality education as a vital part of youth and adolescents education; concrete efforts to eliminate stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV; and acknowledging that prevention interventions are most effective when developed in partnership with the affected group, in this case young people.
The active presence of young people in a conference that is mainly scientific in nature – with notes by the ICAAP Organizing Committee that — please keep in mind that this is a scientific conference, not a community gathering,” had different levels of responses. While Marina Mahathir, the leader of the Malaysia AIDS Foundation and an advocate for youth health and rights, was graceful enough to side with the hardships young people face in participating in such space as the ICAAP and provide them with the opportunity to speak up, others like the UN Goodwill Ambassador for HIV/AIDS, Salman Ahmad, chose to challenge the youth participants and provide the unnecessary reminder that meaningful youth participation cannot happen overnight – young people must be patient and persistent, realize that you may not be doing this for your generation but that others will benefit from your efforts. Young people attending this session were as young as 18 years of age and to hear that meaningful youth participation is not an achievable until the next generation is indeed discouraging. But not for long, the Bali Youth Force has a mandate, they represent young people from across Asia and the Pacific, to ensure that their voices are being heard and that their demands will be considered at all levels.
Having participated in youth conferences in Latin America, Africa and worked with young people from all over at the UN, seeing the commitment, dedication and tireless effort of young activists from Asia was once again an affirmation that young people are involved and want to be active in matters affecting the lives – contrary to the view of some decision makers that young people just want their presence to be felt. Bringing young people together with a diverse array of background, voices, perspectives and motivations is strength in and of itself for the movement. Leading a healthy and just life is everyone’s challenges and working together is more effective in achieving such a large goal than working alone. Having vision, hope and be ready to face the challenges ahead is the future and if we are the future, we are also want to be part of how that future will be shaped.
The statement produced and the commitments made during the ICAAP will be followed upon in about three-month time in Beijing at the 5th Asia and Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health and Rights. The Bali Youth Force will continue to be an active informal network working to fulfill the commitments young people made during the Congress as well as to hold those who also made commitment to young people accountable.
Marisa Viana-Aitchison is the Program Associate, Asia and Latin America Programs, at the International Women’s Health Coalition. Read her bio here.