The coordinators of the 10 Days of Activism asked me to address the theme above. Obviously assuming that in my role as Ambassador for HIV/Aids (recently formally expanded to explicitly include Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights as well) I believe that youth should be in the spot light. And assuming that I have opinions on how that best could be achieved. The first assumption is certainly true, and I will come back to that in more detail. I am not sure whether I have concrete answers to the second assumption, but I am happy to share my thoughts, experiences and what I have learned in working with young people over the last two years.
It seems so obvious that young people should be at the spot light in national HIV responses. After all half of the world’s population is under 25, more than ever before in our history. In many countries up to 40% of the population is under 15 years of age. We know that young people are vulnerable in many areas. Also – and maybe even in particular – when it comes to their sexual and reproductive health and rights.Almost half of all new HIV infections take place in people below 25 years.Young drug users and young sex workers are at particular risk of HIV but there needs are often ignored. Many young people are poorly equipped when it comes to sexuality, lacking the knowledge and tools to make free and healthy choices. Sexual violence is a common feature in the lives of too many young people, especially for girls. But also those whose sexual orientation and gender identity is different from the heterosexual norm face sexual violence, stigma and discrimination.
However we do no justice to the potential and the strength of young people if we just define them in terms of their vulnerability and not acknowledge their power for change, their energy and insights.
Young people have a right to honest information, to comprehensive sexuality education and to sexual and reproductive health services that take them serious and respect their confidentiality. And more than anything else, young people need an environment that supports them in making their own free choices on sexuality and reproduction. Too often however it is 40 plus people like me who determine what young people need. At best this is done with good intentions but might not cater for what young people really want. At worst this comes with strong moral messages on what young people should, and should not do. Young people should be empowered to take their own decisions, to express their needs and to be heard when it comes to their sexual and reproductive health and rights.
If we want to engage young people in a meaningful way we must first and foremost create space, opportunities and voice for young leadership to contribute and influence the broader processes of planning, policy formulation and democratization. This is not always easy in real life. Often young people do not get the space to participate, or their participation is merely tokenistic without any real opportunity to influence. Whilst young people have the capacities and the creativity to formulate new questions and answers to the challenges we are facing – their lack of experience is often used against them.
Youth is at the core of the Dutch policy on HIV/Aids and sexual and reproductive health and rights. To a large extent based on the pragmatic Dutch approach towards youth and sexuality, resulting in low teenage pregnancy rates and low abortion rates. When I started as Ambassador for HIV/Aids, in summer 2009, I was convinced of the need to work with youth but not sure how that could best be done in a meaningful way. I have worked closely with youth networks such as the CHOICE for Youth and Sexuality and entered into different approaches – learning from what works and what doesn’t, and adapting accordingly. I would like to share two interesting examples.
In April 2010 we selected a youth representative in our delegation to the Global Fund board. The Global Fund is the largest multilateral financier for programmes to fight Aids, TB and malaria. They fund programmes that are directly relevant to young people, and yet young people are underrepresented at all levels. Initially we envisaged that our youth representative would primarily serve our Board delegation, providing youth perspectives on policies and Board documents and consulting with youth networks in our countries. However soon we realized that being the first Board delegation with a youth representative provided us with a world of opportunities outside our Board delegation. We were able to go beyond volunteerism and provide her with a contract that allowed her to work full time on youth related issues. To improve access for young people at country level it was important to first invest in awareness and knowledge – so we made ‘our’ youth representative available to participate in regional trainings for youth in Bangkok, Cape Town and Panama. The Global Fund Partnership Forum, held in Brazil at the end of June 2011, for the first time included a large number of youth. They were a voice that could not be ignored and came up with a number of important recommendations to make the Global Fund more youth-sensitive.
A second example was our work with youth around the High Level Meeting on HIV/Aids, held in June 2011 in New York. We routinely include a youth representative in our delegation and ask youth networks to identify their own candidate. They came back to us and asked whether a second youth representative – at their own cost – could be included in our delegation. Youth leadership by definition has a high turnover as young people get older, and building institutional capacity and memory is a challenge for many youth networks. This way we benefitted from broad youth perspectives and could provide an interesting learning experience for a young youth leader.
I have tremendously enjoyed working with youth – their energy, creativity and insights have inspired me and I have learned a lot. I have come to realize that working with youth requires a different mindset – it is not just about listening to young people but about providing space for young people to speak themselves.
I am pleased to see such active engagement of youth at this website. I would like to encourage all of you to speak up. The main difference between you and the rest of us is that we are older. And that in itself in not an achievement. Don’t hesitate to express your opinions. Write your own future. I wish you a lot of inspiration and success.
This blog is part of the campaign Ten Days of Activism, a global youth event lead by Y-PEER.
Marijke Wijnroks was appointed the Netherlands’ HIV/AIDS Ambassador on 1 July 2009. She has worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 1998, her previous position being Senior Adviser on Health and HIV/AIDS. In this capacity she represented the Netherlands in the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Since 1 July 2011, her position is Deputy Director of the Social Development Department as well as Ambassador for Sexual and Reproductive Health and AIDS. Marijke Wijnroks is a qualified physician and has for many years been involved in the global fight against HIV/AIDS, and other health issues. Before joining the ministry she worked for the Pan American Health Organization in El Salvador (1993-1998), Helen Keller International in Bangladesh (1991-1993) and Médecins Sans Frontières in Southern Sudan and Uganda (1987-1991).