Standing Up for Youth Health and Rights at the International AIDS Conference

Sunday’s opening session of the International AIDS Conference was significant not only because it marks the beginning of what we all hope will be a productive week of idea sharing and global strategizing—but because the youngest speaker at the conference, 22 year old Rachel Arinii Judhistari (left), commanded the podium, bringing the spotlight to the rights and needs of youth around the world. IWHC has worked with Rachel over the last few years, and we’re so excited to see her grow from a participant of our Advocacy in Practice training into an increasingly fierce and kind advocate for youth.

“Young people account for around 40 percent of new HIV infections,” she noted, “but we don’t account for 40 percent of budgets and programs.” Rachel’s brand of smart and bold advocacy is exactly what young people need more of at the highest levels. But how did she manage to break through such tough political barriers and gain an invitation to speak?

As Rachel said in her speech, the sexuality education she received growing up in Indonesia was full of dangerous misinformation: “When I was 15, my teachers got us together asked for a special meeting,” she said. “A male guest in doctor’s coat accompanied by our Imam told us that the condom campaign was propaganda to make people lose faith in God. If we engaged with this we would be sinners. No girls could ask questions because they said only boys were at risk. This was our sexual education.”Around this same time, Rachel became aware that several of her friends who had been raped were forced to marry their rapist to preserve the family’s honor. Rachel was outraged, but didn’t know what to do. She joined the Red Cross as a peer advisor, and realized that young people did not have to be silenced, that they could use their voices to create change.

In 2006, she helped found Indonesia’s Independent Youth Alliance (IYA), a now nationwide network of over 200 young advocates with two coordinators in each state speaking out for youth health and rights at the local, government and international levels. They have been successful in getting representation for young people and work with the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of Youth and Sports for government programs and policies that will protect young people and give them a foundation for a better life. Members of the IYA are the first young people invited to participate in the regional network of AIDS ambassadors.

This year, while still heavily involved with IYA, Rachel became the youngest ever Program Officer for the Asian-Pacific Research and Resource Center for Women (ARROW), an organization that works with advocates from across 13 countries including Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Pakistan, and the Philippines to improve women’s lives through a focus on sexual and reproductive health. With a passion for justice and a true eagerness to open people’s minds to the realities of young people’s lives, Rachel has gained entry into some of the toughest political arenas possible.

But Rachel’s presence at the IAC is not just a personal victory; it is a victory for all young people—and for the IAC coordinating body itself. Only by welcoming and respecting the voices of young people, can we move forward toward more realistic and effective plans for prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS and true sexual and reproductive health for all.

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