There is a lot about this session that I adored and that moved me immensely so I will start with what went right. This session was organized by and lead by 52 Young People from 15 different countries who banded together to creatively share challenges and perspectives on making sure that their views and their vision was more than just the token “youth voice on a panel or a board” that is so often the case. This combined with an incredibly exhilarating and joyous percussive opening that flowed into song with 52 young people together in harmony and more importantly in power with the chant “VIVA Young People VIVA!!” echoing around the walls of the session room. Then a group of youth shared incredible spoken word poetry about their lives, their sexual health, living with HIV and the failure of people to address inequalities in healthcare and attitudes and a glaring lack of rights education. One spoke about the judgments they face around “the errors of life I have to work with, because no one is perfect.” There was a sense of hope and a demand to live life “fully engaged and unobstructed.”
One speaker spoke about the legal age deemed an adult and said instead of “age 21 bringing entry to bars, we should be setting new bars in activism.” There are real challenges faced in involvement and activism from youth and the perception from them that there is a lack of capacity building and a space at the table and that their voice is a certain distance from where decisions germane to their lives and their health are being made. The importance of harnessing the language of the youth to better connect with them and the importance of not just seeking out the most articulate youth to be involved in organisations and initiatives. There needs to be meaningful representatives from marginalised groups.
Now here is where it went off the rails and squandered the power previously generated. On the panel there were a range of young activists and high level respondents to each panelist. One of them was a young man living with HIV and just as he was getting into his story and harnessing his voice the moderator cut him off due to his respondent The Minister of Health having another more pressing session to attend. However he had ample time to ramble about topics and scenarios so far flung that they weren’t even in the same galaxy as what the session was about, and more importantly had nothing to do with the question posed (and interrupted) by the HIV+ youth aside from the deflection that “You can’t fund an attitude change”. For all of the calls to stop using youth in a superficial way they certainly didn’t extend that same right to him, and it made me angry I’m not going to lie. To end with I posed the question that as a young HIV+ male I found it hard to swallow that they didn’t move the panel order around if there were pressing engagements for the minister and why that sort of tokenism and thoughtlessness is ok when it is applied to HIV+ people.
To end with I addressed the comments made by the Minister for Health around not being able to fund an attitude change: “I believe that you can in fact budget for training sensitivity and best practices to your health care professionals and at the very least HIV and sexual health knowledge, As we all know stigma and judgment thrives in ignorance and misconceptions, it dies in enlightenment and knowledge and discussion.” As I was leaving the session room a young advocate rushed out to catch me because she wanted to say that was in fact the question everyone should have been asking.