Youth activists from across the region met in Bangkok this week, ahead of the Asia-Pacific Intergovernmental Meeting on HIV and AIDS. They discussed what efforts they want governments and others to make to help adolescents combat HIV and AIDS. UNICEF’s Simon Nazer caught up with some of the youth leaders to hear about their experiences and hopes.
Chin Gipolio, 28, Philippines
“My first experience [as an adolescent at risk of HIV] was when I was having sex and wanted to explore myself as a transgender person and have new experiences. That’s why I did sex work and worked in a bar.
“I actually got involved in activism through a UNICEF project that trained adolescents about HIV and AIDS. One association asked me to become a peer-to-peer educator. In the Philippines, I want to achieve a level of understanding for those who need services, especially young people and children. Secondly I want to open minds about LGBT people in communities.”
Neil Mu, 23, China
“My best friend in life died three years ago. We were the same age but he had HIV. He was an AIDS patient for five years without medical treatment. I didn’t know how to express my feelings, it hurt so much. So I joined an organization to support youths like him.
“One time an 18 year old came to our organisation seeking HIV testing and consultation because he had had unprotected sex with a man. He cried when I told him he had a positive result and asked what he could do. After he left, I sat alone in the testing room thinking about what more we could all do for young people.”
Sulique Waqa, 29, Fiji
“It was difficult to access health services in my community at a young age because I needed my parent’s consent and to be accompanied by them. To expose my lifestyle and sexual behavior to them was a no-no.
“Social media is very important in Fiji to reach young people at risk of HIV. We use Facebook especially to reach out to vulnerable groups, generate discussion, share information and organise events and HIV treatment services. Groups can also be closed to outsiders, allowing for safe, confidential and private spaces to share and engage.”
Gautam Yadav, 24, India
“As an adolescent, I was confused about my sexuality and didn’t know how to talk about it. There was no education on sexuality or HIV and AIDS. I didn’t even know what a condom was. I saw them and thought they were just balloons! Because of that I didn’t know about HIV, and by the time I was 19, I found out I was HIV positive. I think that if I’d had HIV education at school, I would be HIV negative now.
“When I was younger I wanted to be an actor, but after I found out I was HIV positive I changed. I don’t want any other Gautams to suffer at 15 or 16, like I did. I want to help people understand this situation.”
Myo That Oo, 20, Myanmar
“I face many challenges in life. I’ve been called ‘HIV guy’ by people. I asked them why, and it was because I was working with the HIV community. There were problems accessing sexual health services when I was under 18, because in Myanmar access is only for those over 18 or married. There were also problems with condoms, not knowing how to use them properly.
“I would like to see more investment in HIV services and counselling rooms, and for these to be more friendly towards young people if they want to use them.”
Muhamed Moiz, 23, Pakistan
“When I was young, there was negligible information [on HIV]. In my country, the public messaging was that AIDS equaled death. We’d have AIDS awareness messages on TV which were horrible, saying that AIDS was untreatable and meant death, so that was it. Besides that I knew nothing.
“I’m not someone who stays silent when I see inequality in society, especially towards people with different sexuality. I want equal opportunities for all. Now young people are starting to make more impact, and have a platform to raise their voice.”
Nancy Zhang, 29, China
“I serve young people and I want to improve communications between high risk groups, such as lesbian, gay, transgender, who share the same challenges with discrimination and stigma. They are easily marginalized by society, plus they are more vulnerable to HIV.
“I’m not young anymore, but I want to leave this message for current and future generations saying this fight must continue, even on taboo subjects like gender and sexuality. It’s valuable to invest in data and use this as a weapon for advocacy to participate in the decision-making process.”
Setia Perdana, 25, Indonesia
“As an adolescent, I was violated, harassed and bullied because I was ‘too feminine’ as a boy. I even stigmatized myself. During the bad times I knew it wasn’t just me, so I decided if I didn’t start voicing these problems no one would, so that’s why I started.
“In my opinion a top priority for policy change is making sure young people can freely access sexual health services, particularly HIV tests and harm reduction.”
Kong Bunthorn, 24, Cambodia
“When I was under 18, I tried to access HIV services but it was hard because you needed your parents’ consent. This was confidential for me and I didn’t want my parents to know. Plus I’d have had to speak to a councilor who asks you about your sexuality. If I told them, I thought they would tell me it was unacceptable.
“I want my country to change policy to allow under 18s to access HIV services.”
Thanh Tung, 24, Viet Nam
“In Viet Nam, the stigma around HIV is very serious. You cannot access websites about HIV or talk to people about it. I wondered how someone from my home town would access information and protect themselves and their partner. As a young person, I had no support and had to get all the information myself.
“In Viet Nam, the policies on HIV are quite good and have recently improved, but I hope they can accept young people with different sexual orientation who are vulnerable, and help them all work together to form a big community.”
Simon Nazer is Communication Consultant for UNICEF East Asia and Pacific