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Young People Are Shaping a New Era of Global Citizenship for Solidarity and Social Justice

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In the next few posts I will be shining a spotlight on some of the major issues to be featured at the 2012 International AIDS Conference, which is taking place in Washington, D.C. from July 22-27.

"With the rise of technology comes the demise of silence. Young people can take a stand and make their voices heard!" -- CrowdOutAIDS Open Forum

In early April Zahra, a young Algerian woman stood in front of her Minister of Health and called on leaders of her country to open up the space for dialogue about sexuality. She wanted young people to access accurate information about how to protect themselves from HIV. More dramatically, she said, "Young people are ready to take on the responsibility to drive progressive change in their communities and societies to fulfill their right to sexual and reproductive health."

Zahra is one of 5,000 young people from all around the world who came together to help UNAIDS develop its strategy for engagement with youth. Using a crowdsourcing approach, CrowdOutAIDS produced a set of recommendations for how UNAIDS can move the agenda on HIV and young people forward.

Thirty years into the AIDS epidemic, there are still 3,000 young people who are newly infected with HIV every day around the world. They add to the estimated five million young people living with HIV worldwide. Most of these young people do not know that they have HIV, and far fewer get access to treatment. To me, this is unacceptable.

Through CrowdOutAIDS, young people formulated three clear priorities for UNAIDS over the next four years.

First, to start social dialogues and shape public opinion to change harmful social norms and break down the taboos that surround sex in our societies. It's clear to me that young people are asking for a social climate where they can gain access to accurate information about sexual and reproductive health and make informed decisions about their lives.

In Namibia, for example, a young woman who is found to be carrying a condom is perceived as promiscuous, not responsible -- when in fact the condom is still one of the most effective means to prevent HIV, other sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancies. It will not matter how many condoms we distribute if social perceptions and stigma hinder young women and men from using them.

Removing legal and social barriers that prevent young people from accessing sexual health and family planning services is the second priority outlined by young people for the AIDS response.

For example, in many countries in the Caribbean young people cannot access some sexual and reproductive health services until they are 18 years old without parental consent. At the same time, the legal age of consent to have sexual relations is 16 years of age. "You can legally have sex at 16, but you cannot have legal access to contraception and other health services until you are 18 or have your parents' consent," said a Caribbean CrowdOutAIDS participant. Similarly, many countries still criminalize behaviours that put young people at risk of HIV infection, such as same-sex relationships, drug use and sex work.

This type of legal and policy dissonance stops young people from accessing even the most basic of HIV prevention commodities and services.

Finally, the third and perhaps most important recommendation is to eliminate stigma and discrimination against young people living with HIV and dispel myths about AIDS.

Many of the young people living with HIV live not just in fear of the virus and its implications for their health, but the greater fear that disclosing their HIV status might mean they lose their jobs, are expelled from school, or lose the support and care of their family and friends.

Stigma associated with, and myths about, AIDS prevent many young people from testing for HIV, shutting out their ability to protect themselves and their loved ones. We now know that HIV, when treated, is just another chronic disease -- and that people living with HIV and with access to treatment can live long, healthy and productive lives. Today, we also know that HIV treatment provides an additional dividend of HIV prevention, as the likelihood that a person living with HIV on treatment transmits the virus to a non-infected partner is reduced by 96 percent!

These recommendations are practical, feasible and morally imperative.

So what can we do? CrowdOutAIDS demonstrated that new media tools can catapult citizen participation in global policy making to a whole new level. Young people's participation in setting the development agenda can go beyond tokenism, with an un-preceded opportunity to democratize problem solving in the AIDS response. Youth around the world are shaping a new era of global citizenship for global solidarity and social justice. Together, they are poised to Crowd Out AIDS! Let us join them.

If you want to connect with UNAIDS to shape a global movement on HIV and young people, put yourself on the crowdmap of youth organizations and activists in the AIDS response here.

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