Fighting to be heard: Youth AIDS activists struggle for a seat at the table


A panel discussion in the Youth Pavilion at AIDS 2012, entitled "Young People Leading the Fight Against HIV/AIDS"


Emily Judem

#page .lead-media-photo {

WASHINGTON, DC — The extensive program for last week’s International AIDS Conference boasted renowned speakers, politicians, and established leaders in the fight against AIDS. Indeed, speeches by Secretary Clinton and former President Clinton were bookends to a week filled with expert panel discussions, sessions featuring Whoopi Goldberg and Elton John, and discussions with representatives from PEPFAR, the Global Fund, and UNAIDS. An AIDS-free generation became catch-phrase of the week.

But down an escalator, hidden in the back corner of the global village — an area of the conference center set up with booths for advocacy groups from around the world — a lesser-known constituency discussed its ideas about issues of treatment, prevention, and stigma.

These are the youth — the next generation of leaders in the fight against AIDS.

In a panel discussion entitled “Young People Leading the Fight Against HIV/AIDS,” five young people, ages 20 to 25, talked about what’s most important to them as activists in the fight against AIDS. They came to the conference through YouthForce, a coalition of youth organizations that work to leverage the presence and demands of young people at the International AIDS Conference. The coalition was founded in response to the conference in 2000, when only 50 young people participated.

Over the years, young people's participation in the conference has increased, and the need for young voices has been recognized. The “Youth Pavilion,” as the youth’s area of the conference center was called, boasted lively music, loud discussions, and a stage for presentations and panel discussions. AIDS 2012 had its own Youth Programme that worked to strengthen the participation of young people at the conference. YouthForce also had a prominent link on the conference’s website. 

But throughout the week, most of the youth discussions and presentations took place in the Youth Pavilion, separated from the main conference, and that symbolism — no matter how unintentional — was not lost on the youth.

“We’re put in this corner, not even in one of the real spaces,” said Ernesto Dominguez, 23. “It’s a tokenizing way of having our voices present.”

Over and over again, the panelists explained that not only are they fighting against HIV/AIDS, but they are also fighting for the right to be heard.

“You need to directly hear from us instead of talking about us,” said Lawrence Stallworth, 20. “We’re the up-and-coming generation, and you have to get us ready for that.”

In 2009, young people, ages 13 to 29, accounted for 39 percent of all new HIV infections in the US, according to the CDC. Only 30 percent of this age group reported that they had been tested for HIV in the last 12 months, even though 46 percent reported having ever had sex. Eighty-seven percent of high school students said that they had been taught about HIV/AIDS in school.

On July 24, 12 founding partners announced the creation of National Youth HIV and AIDS Awareness Day in order to bring more attention to young people’s demands to be prioritized and included in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

If there’s any hope of an AIDS-free generation, panelists reminded the audience last week, it’s the next generation who will make it happen.

“Let’s be straightforward. Eventually you guys are going to retire,” said Stallworth. “We have the generation to do it and we’re going to be the generation to do it.” 

More from GlobalPost: VIDEO: Growing up with HIV

More from GlobalPost: AIDS: The stories that change the game