In 2008, young people accounted for over 40 per cent of all new HIV infections in people aged 15 years and older. Of the 33.4 million people living with HIV globally, 4.9 million are young people between the ages of 15 and 24. Almost two-thirds of the total population living with HIV live in sub-Saharan Africa, with the second highest prevalence in South-East Asia and the Pacific. The fastest growing HIV epidemic in the world is taking place in Central and Eastern Europe, the Russian Federation and in Ukraine.
Young people are more susceptible than are older persons to the risk of HIV infection due to various factors. These include a lack of knowledge and skills regarding HIV transmission and protection and a lack of access to quality basic social services, including HIV testing and treatment. Such factors can be linked to discrimination, cost of services, and distance from health centres, as well as laws, cultural norms and practices that may disempower groups, preventing them from gaining access to adequate prevention information. Many young people are also more prone to engage in risky behaviour due to peer pressure, inability to calculate risk, and impaired judgement due to intoxication. Young women currently account for around 66 per cent of infections among youth globally. They are particularly at risk due to gender-based violence, weak family structures and social protection mechanisms, gender inequality and trafficking.
Young people already living with HIV/AIDS face significant challenges such as inadequate access to health and social support services, stigma and discrimination. Despite the large numbers of youth living with HIV/AIDS, few national HIV strategies acknowledge the needs and situation of young people, and their participation in the planning and design of interventions which target them is limited.
Through UNPY’s Facebook consultation, we asked young people what they thought their role was in halting the spread of HIV/AIDS. Their response was that they needed to be included in the development of strategies to stop the spread of the disease, as many felt that young people are the most vulnerable to HIV. Some expressed that young people themselves have a responsibility for their own health and therefore must start looking at their own lifestyles and possible solutions to limit their risk of being infected. The consultation also showed that young people are already doing a lot when it comes to awareness-raising and educating themselves and their peers about HIV/AIDS, including through educational projects, campaigns and awareness-raising initiatives in various parts of the world.
Young people demonstrate their commitment and dedication to improving their societies by taking on important roles in HIV/AIDS information-sharing and education. One such dedicated young person is Urmila Bhatta of Nepal.
Urmila is a 22-year-old woman from the remote far western region of Kailali, Nepal. It is young people like her who are most affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the region. A large proportion of men from the area migrate for work, and many contract HIV in their host environment before passing it on to their wives on their return home.
Urmila saw the daily prejudice and suffering of women infected by their husbands. As a result, she joined the NGO Restless Development in Nepal to make a positive impact in her community and help combat the prejudices and stereotypes that surround the disease.
While working as a volunteer in Doti, Urmila met with a 40-year-old woman who had contracted HIV from her migrant worker husband. The woman’s husband had since died from the pandemic, and her family, including her son and daughter-in-law, treated her as an outsider. She was made to sleep in a separate room, eat separate food, and wash her clothes with water from a separate tap. After meeting with the woman and learning of her suffering, Urmila urged the woman’s daughter-in-law to participate in the Restless Development community workshop teaching community members about how HIV/AIDS is transmitted and treated. After attending the workshop, the daughter-in-law’s attitude to the disease completely changed, and she welcomed her mother-in-law back into the family.
Through volunteering, Urmila “learned the true hardship of life in rural Nepal” and was inspired to dedicate her life to improving it. She returned to her own village and immediately conducted a two-day informational workshop about HIV/AIDS so that her own community could benefit from the knowledge and expertise she had gained during her time in Doti.
Urmila didn’t stop there. She went on to become a volunteer with dance4life, a project run by Restless Development to empower young people to be active and enthusiastic leaders in the fight against HIV/AIDS. She is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in education and serves as the National Secretary of a student-led group, seeking to use education to urge more effective national policies. Urmila is passionate about making her country a better place for its citizens. She plans to complete her education degree in order to help empower other young people to put the issues faced by young people on the governmental agenda and to push for change at a national level. In her own words, Urmila believes that “our youth are the power of this nation.”