Liveblogging: UN Youth Assembly Day 3 – With All Our Strength, Hearts, and Minds – Combating HIV/AIDS

The session started with a moment of silence for independence, in honour of India’s Independence Day. The first speaker was Dr. Aleksandra Sasha Bodiroza, Technical Specialist for HIV/AIDS at the UNFPA. He describes the various approaches that UN bodies and NGOs have taken to combat and educate people on AIDS – and why they DON’T work. Turns out that efforts tend to so scattered and unconnected that there is hardly any impact. However, when efforts are linked and connect with each other, and when young people are given more power over decision-making, the impact made is far far greater and far more effective. 11 different campaigns for $468,000 was not as effect as one solid campaign that only cost about $70,000. I was surprised at the honesty – most other speakers have been “this is why we are great” and it was refreshing to see someone say “hey, what we’re doing doesn’t work”.

Next up is Brad Kerner of Save the Children. He shared stories of young people around the world making a difference in the world of HIV/AIDS. He also shared their strategy of SOS – Skills, Opportunities, and Services – to provide care and help to younf peoploe living through HIV/AIDS. It linked in quite well with the earlier presentation on how youth can be more involved in decision making and being powered to fight AIDS by providing plenty of real0life examples.

The next speaker was from UNICEF United For Children – I didn’t get his name. He also touches on the different strategies taken to combat HIV/AIDS, but also speaks of some challenges. The first is whether young people get the correct scientific information about HIV/AIDS, the second is the issue of gender equality (which he found important), and the last issue is the discrimination of people with HIV/AIDS.

Let me get on my soapbox here for a second. In this Youth Assembly I have met a few groups who promote abstinence as the main way to combat HIV/AIDS. You should not have sex at all until “lifetime partnership”, and if you do get HIV/AIDS from sex, you should remain abstinent so that you don’t pass it on to anyone else. I have a few issues with that approach. Firstly, it places virginity on too high a pedestal, and implies that anyone who’s had premarital sex is immoral, evil, and HIV-spreaders worthy of contempt. It’s not your virginity that makes you a good or bad person! Abstinence only doesn’t protect you wholly from HIV/AIDS – there’s also needles, and blood transfusions. The fastest growing group of people with HIV are straight married women. Are they to be blamed for not being “abstinent” when they got the disease from their husbands? It also ignores all the cultural implications that go with HIV/AIDS – how there are cultures with a high HIV/AIDS rate that encourage young marriages, polygamy, where a suggested cure is to have sex with a virgin. Being abstinent doesn’t help you. And has any of those young people ever heard of a CONDOM? Someone please correct me if I’m wrong, but I think it’s not possible to be extra HIV positive once you’ve been infected, so how does being abstinent then help? It doesn’t cure you. The issue is being faithful, not being abstinent. If they’re going to use abstinence as a way to protect others from spreading the disease, then why don’t they talk about blood donations? HIV+ blood, while rarely donated, still exists, and there have been people that have been affected recently through blood donations. What about people that were raped – are they to be blamed for not being “abstinent”? What about children born with HIV/AIDS – are they to stay abstinent forever, never to find a partner?

Even the way the medical aspects of the disease was portrayed was totally off – one youth group that did a skit had a story about a young girl who has sex with a guy once and gets sick. The doctor asks if she’s “been close with someone recently” and then tests her for HIV “just in case”. THAT IS NOT HOW IT WORKS! Doctors tend to be a lot more direct with that, especially with STIs, and you need to specifically request for a HIV test mainly because the implications are so big. They could suggest it, but they won’t do it without your consent. Also, I highly doubt sharing EARRINGS counted as “needles”. Yes, it may not be a good idea to share things that have been close to your body to someone whose immune system is compromised, but it’s more complex with HIV/AIDS itself. There was all this rhetoric about how you are a “hero” if you wait and how you’re “worth the wait” – but not much actual education about protecting yourself and others, other modes of transmission, the medical process. It gives a false sense of security – “you’ll never suffer if you stay pure!”. That group performed at Culture Night last night and made me so md that I left soon after. Also, this speaker tried to link watching porn with HIV/AIDS. er. I’m not sure that’s always a good reason.

The last speaker is Dr. Bunmi Makinwa, Director of UNAIDS. He talked about the efforts of the UN and the Government in combatting AIDS (Senegal is apparently a great example) and asked us young people what we could do about it. I was busy writing blog entries so I didn’t catch a lot of it. We have question time – one asked what Senegal did that South Africa didn’t do with HIV/AIDS, and what South Africa does with all the money. The next question was about changing attitudes on apathy. Senegal took the issue of AIDS/HIV seriously and across all levels of government (including religious leaders who were skeptikal at first). South Africa, though, took too long – by the time they got around to tackling the issue, it was already in epidemic levels. People also aren’t taking pills because they feel they were going to die anyway, so why bother.

The last question was about the best way of preventing HIV/AIDS contamination, and the best educational method for addressing the issue. He brought up abstinence as the best way, but thought it was contradictory when condoms was being distributed. Dr. Sasha brought up a study that says abstinence makes no difference. It is a valid method, but when you promote abstinence ONLY, it doesn’t really help. There is no balance, and there’s no proof that abstinence-only programs actually work. He talked about visiting a Palestinian center where young people knew they were at risk, but didn’t know where to get a condom. In today’s environment, you HAVE to get a balance – talk about abstinence, sure, but also talk about being faithful and talk about condoms. There are people that have never had sex, those who have tried it but haven’t continued in a while, those who are sexually active. How do you preach abstinence ONLY when a lot of the people you’re talking to have gone past abstinence? I’m SO GLAD Dr Sasha brought up the study and his experiences – about 1/5th of the folk here are from a group that’s pro-abstinence-only and are quite vocal about it, and it’s necessary that they be aware of the impact of such programs. THANK YOU.

Next session is the environment. Be back in a few.

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