Ten years ago, I took an HIV test. I was motivated to take the test because I lost my closest relative to HIV. Knowing my own HIV status has empowered me to make informed decisions about my life and to reach out to my family and peers to encourage them to get tested early too. While at school, some of my peers were HIV positive and faced a number of challenges, including stigma and discrimination, and many didn’t know how to find youth-friendly HIV services. All of the above inspired me to join an organization that aims to fulfill the needs of HIV positive youth.
Serving the underserved
HIV positive youth are an important, but often underserved population. Approximately 5.4 million young people aged 15 to 24 are living with HIV worldwide, and that number is growing at an alarming rate (UNAIDS). The availability of antiretroviral therapy and improved care and treatment has enabled many to live into their teenage years and beyond. Yet, quite often, programs that directly address the needs of HIV-infected youth are neglected in favor of approaches that focus on younger children or adults. As the number of HIV-infected youth increases, more programs are needed to provide targeted HIV services.
For many youth, reducing their sexual risk and disclosing their status—especially to their peers and teachers, if they are still in school—are daunting challenges. Stigma remains a critical challenge at the family level, in the health facilities and in schools; “felt” stigma (stigma that an individual feels toward himself or herself) is also a major issue.
In my community, youth are still unable to access youth-friendly HIV services. I believe communities like mine can empower HIV-positive youth who choose to be open about their HIV status by providing self-esteem training; supporting them to establish youth-centered positive prevention clubs; educating them on condom use, then making protection supplies available; and finally by linking them to existing youth centers and youth organizations to access reproductive health and HIV services.
NUMAT’s multifaceted approach
The Northern Uganda Malaria AIDS and Tuberculosis Program (NUMAT), a JSI Research & Training Institute, Inc. implemented project, is committed to increasing access to and utilization of HIV services for young people living with HIV. They support targeted and appropriate prevention activities, and they reach out to young people living with HIV to reduce their vulnerability to HIV re-infection and other infectious diseases.
NUMAT is reducing stigma and discrimination among young people by training teachers to encourage supportive environments for HIV-positive students. Teachers are sensitized to the needs and rights of their students living with HIV. They are then supported to create a conducive learning environment; to encourage school enrollment and retention of positive youth; to provide better school-based services, like psychosocial support, counseling and nutrition; and to help give positive youth more confidence, while mentoring them to pursue their life and career goals.
This post was reprinted with permission from Conversations for a Better World blog.