More than 100 young people from 14 countries across East and Southern Africa gathered for a three and half day summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, to delve into critical issues on HIV and sexual and reproductive health (SRH).
The young delegates represented organizations working in the sectors of HIV, sexual and reproductive health (SRHR) and adolescent girls and young women. The East and Southern Africa (ESA) region accounts for the largest share of the global burden of HIV among young people and reports some of the highest adolescent pregnancy rates.
The movement aims to build on advocacy, leadership and movement-building skills and accelerate youth-led responses and social accountability towards HIV and SRHR commitments.
Y+ Global and AfriYAN ESA, two leading youth-led HIV and sexual and reproductive health (SRH) networks, convened the leadership summit with the support of UNICEF, UNFPA and UNAIDS. The summit provided a platform to get the youth-led HIV and SRHR response back on track by highlighting key issues that impact the lives of people living with and affected by HIV.
“This summit is an opportunity for us to be taken seriously as leaders, partners and experts in the HIV response. We are the most effective advocates for our own health and well-being and that of our peers. To get the HIV response back on track, we must unite and work collaboratively through mutual respect and allow young people to be the drivers of change,” said Maximina Jokonya, Executive Director at Y+ Global.
Leaving No One Behind
The East and Southern Africa (ESA) region accounts for the largest share of the global burden of HIV among young people and reports some of the highest adolescent pregnancy rates. Much progress has been made in the HIV and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) response; however, despite being recognised as a priority, adolescents and young people (AYP) continue to be left behind.
“At this gathering in Johannesburg, we want to listen and hear what young people want and plan to do in their work in HIV and sexual and reproductive health spaces. We are standing by to support them in ways that they want and need to be supported. At UNICEF, we are inspired by young people’s bold and courageous advocacy in East and Southern Africa. They are not only demanding change, but they are actively leading the way and doing the work to bring about the change we all want to see,” said Laurie Gulaid, UNICEF East and Southern Africa HIV Advisor.
AIDS remains the leading cause of death of adolescents in 12 countries in ESA, and almost six times as many adolescent girls were newly infected with HIV than adolescent boys. According to UNFPA and UNICEF, in this region, over one in four young women give birth before age 18, one in three girls get married by age 18, and almost one in six young women experience gender-based violence. Much work remains to ensure young people live full and healthy lives.
“We must put our money and efforts where our interests lie: scaling up interventions in SRHR and mental health is a necessary bridge to get to the much desired economic empowerment of millions of Africa’s young people. The young people of Africa are ready. UNFPA is committed,” said Lydia Zigomo, UNFPA Regional Director, East and Southern Africa.
Youth as Partners and Leaders
Adolescents and young people are not just beneficiaries but active partners and leaders in the HIV and SRHR response. They have the right to engage, have a say, and advocate for their health and well-being.
Anne Githuku-Shongwe, UNAIDS Regional Director for East and Southern Africa, highlighted that “in East and Southern Africa, adolescent girls and young women are particularly vulnerable to acquire HIV. They are three times as likely to acquire HIV as adolescent boys and young men. 4,200 adolescent girls and young women aged 15– 24 years became infected with HIV every week in 2021. The issue of HIV in adolescent girls and young women is a threat to Africa’s future.”
Throughout the region, country-level youth-led networks play a crucial role in advocating and supporting the needs of their constituents. Initiatives such as Ground UP!, HER Voice Fund, and Education Plus, which are supported by various UN agencies, including UNICEF, UNFPA and UNAIDS, exist to support the enhanced capacity of networks to lead and advocate for change and influence key decision-makers and spaces and enhance the HIV prevention focus on adolescent girls and young women. Without the leadership and meaningful engagement of AYP themselves, it will be impossible to attain the 2030 targets and end AIDS.
Teboho Mohloai, Secretary General of AfriYAN East and Southern Africa, stressed the importance of collaboration and partnership. “It’s critical for young people, in all their diversity, to unite, lead and collaborate for better access to health services, commodities and information to improve their health and well-being,” she said. By the end of the summit, youth leaders had contributed to recommendations that would strengthen the collaboration within and across youth-led HIV and SRH networks at the country and regional level and established clear and solid next steps for the youth movement building in the region.
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of UNFPA – East and Southern Africa.