Ricardo Baruch, 21, of Mexico is a student of political science and aspires to work as an investigator of topics related to sexual and reproductive health. Discovering at the age of 14 that he was gay, Ricardo went to a local NGO, Mexfund, to get more information on sexual orientation. What he learnt about sexual and reproductive health rights was so comprehensive and enlightening that he decided to spread the message among unaware Mexican youth.
Today, he is Coordinator and Co-founder of a youth group called 'Juventud Alpha', the first national group in Mexico of young people advocating for space and voice in policy matters relating to reproductive health and HIV/AIDS. He is also one of the youth leaders specially invited to the XVI International AIDS Conference in Toronto (August 13 to 18, 2006; organized by the International AIDS Society and hosted by the Canadian government) to challenge world leaders about their commitment in involving today's young leaders and the leaders of tomorrow in authentic decision-making.
At a dynamic session on the opening day of the conference - which had over 24,000 delegates attending from 170 countries - Ricardo took world leaders to task, demanding that ministers of governments and policymakers must take youth voices into account while formulating legislation.
According to Medicins Sans Frontieres, every minute a child under the age of 15 is infected with HIV. AIDS kills over 1,000 children everyday and claims roughly half a million lives every year. According to the World Health Organization, each day, some 1,500 children under the age of 15 become infected with HIV, an estimated 90 per cent of who live in sub-Saharan Africa. The pandemic affects the young, and so it stands to reason that the young must have a voice in HIV/AIDS policies.
Caitlin Padgett, 24, of Canada was at first hesitant about speaking her mind as "it is not always received well". But then she decided to take the plunge as the conference offered an ideal opportunity "to speak the truth, especially to address the voices of young drug users, which have remained silent so far". Caitlin is involved with YouthCo AIDS Society, Canada's only youth-driven HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C serving agency. She is also a Founding Member of the Youth Network for Harm Reduction International, which was launched at the International Conference on Drug Related Harm 2006 in Vancouver.
Ricardo and Caitlin are among 14 young leaders from across the globe - aged between 15 and 25 - who converged here for the special session entitled 'From Rhetoric to Action: Defining a Stronger Role for Youth in National and International Policies'. They are members of the Toronto Youth Force, a wide-ranging coalition of over 60 organizations from 10 countries that are supporting meaningful participation, integration and inclusion of young people at the conference.
Sharing the podium with these young leaders were prominent global leaders - Dr Peter Piot, Executive Director of UNAIDS; Mexico's Minister of Health, Dr Julio Frenk; Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, First Lady of Honduras; and Julian Bond, Chairperson of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Piot, concurring with the young delegates, urged countries to involve youth by forming alliances with mainstream youth organizations. Young people under 25 make up half of all new HIV infections, yet they are often excluded or ignored as key players in the fight against HIV/AIDS, he observed. Youth leaders need to be involved in local, national and international policy and programming strategies that will impact their lives and the lives of their peers, Piot underlined.
Despite many national and international policies and programs for youth, these are rarely determined by the youth themselves, the young delegates felt.
Joya Banerjee, 24, of the US hopes that the concerns of youth will be carried on after the conference and incorporated into government policies. Joya, who co-founded the Global Youth Coalition on HIV/AIDS in October 2004, while working at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), says HIV was discovered one year before she was born. "But even today, my peers don't know how to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS," she regrets.
Joel Vengo M'Bongo, in his early 20s, of the Democratic Republic of Congo would like to become an advocate for creating spaces for youth participation at all levels of decision-making, while Keesha Effs of Jamaica has launched a media campaign in her country against acts of violence committed on children and youth. "What drives my passion to join the fight against HIV/AIDS is that we are all vulnerable," is her simple message.
Damaris Perez, 15, of El Salvador was enlisted as early as four years back by her community leaders to conduct training programs and workshops in her school on youth-related issues. During the lively interaction between the world and youth leaders, she asked the Mexican Minister of Health about the global financial and political commitment to HIV/AIDS until the next Conference (the XVII International AIDS Conference, which is to be hosted by the Mexican government in 2008).
Frenk responded by saying that Mexico has been proactive in giving youth space in the country's National Commission on AIDS.
To another youthful query, the First Lady of Honduras said she established a Coalition of First Ladies and Women leaders of Latin America in June 2006 to increase the visibility of women's vulnerability to the epidemic. Under her leadership, the National Youth Institute, the first of its kind in Honduras, was established, and she is promoting the formulation of youth-friendly public policy and national action plans for youth.
The three key messages of the youth force at this conference are: Involve us in decision-making that affects our lives and provide us with fully-funded programs to protect ourselves; as HIV is mainly spread through sex, we need access to condoms and comprehensive sex education to protect ourselves; and we need youth-friendly health services, including prevention, treatment, voluntary counseling and testing and access to harm reduction programs.