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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.
“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.
Simon Nazer is Communication Consultant for UNICEF East Asia and Pacific