Why are the young people absent from AIDS Conferences?

HIV and AIDS in children is of increasing global concern and many specialists are fully dedicated to fighting it. While there have been a total of 17 International AIDS Conferences (IAC) since 1985, the presence of children and adolescents at these conferences has been virtually nonexistent; their voices, more or less silent.

Children have become a key population when it comes to HIV and AIDS. Although children aged under 18 worldwide may not be able to unite and form networks the way injection drugs users (IDUs) or men who have sex with men (MSM) have, they can speak up and express themselves, inspiring people to action.

However, their under-representation at AIDS Conferences deprives them of this chance and results in diminished attention being paid to them. "It’s terrible! There should be many more kids my age", exclaimed Ned Heylar, 12.

At the opening ceremony of the 17th International AIDS conference in Mexico City, Karen Dunaway Gonzalez, a 12-year-old from Honduras spoke to the 23,000 conference participants and received a standing ovation – the only one in the entire four-hour long ceremony.

Karen is HIV positive and her words were clearly a wake up call to the whole crowd. They certainly moved me. For the first time I felt that I really started to understand what it was like to live as a child with HIV – and the challenges such children face.

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Unfortunately, Karen was one of the few, if not the only minor to actually stand in front of a crowd and speak into a microphone.

Craig McClure, Executive Director of the International AIDS Society (IAS) said he also wished there were more children at the conference.

"The problem is that children need a chaperone," he said, "but there should definitely be more young people".

Outspoken AIDS icon and former UN official Stephen Lewis had a much stronger reaction. He said it was "outrageous" that more young people weren’t present at the conference.

"Everyone talks about it," he said, "but no one does anything about it".

Young people from around the world must not be absent from these conferences, for the world needs to hear their voices directly; not processed, digested and delivered through a monotonous adult. Karen’s performance alone should be proof enough that the voice of youth is essential. Speeches like Karen’s must be part of the programme.

Children and adolescents need to be given a platform and a microphone to express their thoughts and feelings towards AIDS – especially HIV-positive youth and children orphaned by AIDS – so that the world can listen and learn from their experience.

At this year’s IAC , volunteers from Youth Force, an organization of young adults that focuses on youth related issues, expressed strong views on the situation.

"Youth are marginalized! We need to see young people speaking with researchers throughout the conference", said Kyla Zanardi, 21. Nickie Imanguli, also from Youth Force added that "No one wants to deal with young people . . . they are considered too risky."

Karen’s message showed us all that a child’s speech on HIV is worth more than a thousand speeches delivered by those who claim to speak on behalf of children. In addition, today’s specialists love to use ‘sophisticated’ language that helps to exclude youth from discussions on AIDS.

"Sessions are sometimes too complicated and hard to understand," commented David Kezaala, aged nine. Of course specialists know a great deal on the virus but the average person doesn’t. Therefore, in order to transmit information successfully, HIV and AIDS should not just be presented in scientific fora, but also for the broader public, so that everyone can understand. Kids speak sincerely and in basic language that everyone can understand.

The presence of children at International AIDS Conferences also has other advantages. A diversity of ages from different countries and social backgrounds would sensitize kids worldwide, fighting stigma and discrimination. According to Stephen Lewis, the presence of children would add tremendous perspective of people who are living as orphans or with the virus. There are no justifiable excuses for the absence of kids at these conferences.

If we really want to eradicate AIDS in all its forms, it is time for a drastic step in the right direction. In the future, we must raise the funds to enable children to speak at these conferences, so the world can hear their voices in person. After all, the children of today are the adults of tomorrow.

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