Gender & Sexuality - Wednesday, April 15, 2009 11:29
A Young Spin on an Old Tale: Youth and HIV/AIDSBy Charlsea Ewing, Staff writer
For centuries conventional wisdom has held that ‘everything that can be said has been said’ and this dogma holds particularly true in journalism. There are very few ‘new’ stories – only old stories with a new spin. And so it is that many valid journalistic points go unnoticed or are undermined by that dreaded demon – apathy. So allow me to start my first article for the Bajan Dream Project by making you a promise: the following article will not change the world or solve the problem. How’s that for a let down? But here’s the upswing: the following article will hopefully change your point of view and initiate conversations that could eventually lead to actions which might possibly invoke societal changes that could through the course of time lead to resolution. Because you never know when one of your readers will be the person destined to change the world…
Today I will tackle a topic that has had as much publicity as any topic in the last 20 years – HIV/AIDS and its effects on society. Because the topic is so broad, we will narrow it down and take a detailed look at one category of this disease – the youth epidemic. How many of you were aware that HIV/AIDS in people age 13-24 is one of the fastest growing demographics on the planet? According to one United States based report the number of young people living with AIDS has increased 42% since 2000 – a truly alarming rate! In order to correctly address this issue we must first understand its origin and its unique challenges. Before we jump into preventive measures, let’s look at the reasons this particular demographic is so vulnerable to this deadly disease.
It is estimated that over 60 million people worldwide have been infected with HIV/AIDS in the last 20 years. Of those people almost half were infected between the ages of 15 and 24. While the previous generation had the excuse of ignorance to fall back on, today’s generation cannot claim that they have not heard of the disease and, for the most part, been informed about its causes, risks, and presence in society. Ask any school kid from Bridgetown to Bangkok and most will be able to tell you more about the disease than any 75 year old on the planet. So if the information is available why is the number increasing?
Information vs. Education
First of all, let us distinguish between being ‘informed’ and being ‘educated.’ An informed person can tell you the where’s and why’s about AIDS – how a person becomes infected, what behavior is risky. It takes an educated person, however, to understand the impacts of this knowledge on their daily lives. Take for example your basic history lesson: Once upon a time there was a large battle and many men died. You are now an ‘informed’ person. But to educate a person about history is to explain why the battle took place, what the outcome was, and how it led to the society we have today. Education is more than books and papers – it is open discussions and in-depth understanding. Which leads us to the issue with HIV/AIDS in our schools and community programs. While students read about HIV/AIDS, there is often a stigma around having a discussion about this disease with parents or teachers. It’s a black hole, a three-letter word not to be spoken about or discussed outside high school health class. If we truly want to address this issue, each school, each community and each family must make an effort to do away with the stigma surrounding the disease and instigate in-depth discussions with the youth. Studies show that our youth, because of their inexperience, often rely on others to make decisions for them. This leads to risky sexual behavior such as not using condoms or having multiple partners. Many young people are becoming sexually active at earlier ages further increasing their risk. If our youth can’t approach adults when facing these decisions who can they turn to?
But surely a lack of education isn’t the only reason for this epidemic. There must be societal factors as well. Much of the spread of HIV/AIDS can be attributed to social taboos and stigmas. Two of the prominent societal taboos deal with women’s rights and homosexual behavior.
Women’s rights & Homosexual taboos
During the early 90′s, the Center for Disease Control in the United States published a study showing that young women, aged 16-21, were 50% more likely to contract AIDS than were their male counterparts. Many experts believe that this is in part due to what is believed to be the women’s ‘role’ in a sexual relationship. Many young women begin having sex with a partner who is older. Often this leads to a lack of negotiation where matters of safety and risk are concerned. Younger women are less likely to demand that a partner use a condom or ask if their partner has been exposed to HIV/AIDS or other STDs. Because many societies across the globe do not encourage or promote community programs or health services for young women, these young girls are left to make life-altering decisions on their own.
If ever there were a societal taboo, homosexuality would be it. In many countries, homosexual behavior is illegal and punishments are severe. Even in tolerant societies, homosexuality remains taboo. This has led to a majority of homosexuals not disclosing their practices. As a result many homosexuals do not get tested for HIV/AIDS and a surprising amount continue to have heterosexual partners as well, therefore increasing the likelihood of spreading the disease between sexes. In many regions, including the Caribbean, the actual number of homosexuals living with HIV/AIDS is considered unknown because of the rampant homophobia in those areas.
While sexual activity leads to most of the HIV/AIDS exposure, we cannot ignore the substance abuse exposures. Not only does the use of ‘dirty’ needles and reusing drug paraphernalia spread HIV/AIDS but drug users are more likely to partake in risky sexual behavior therefore increasing their exposure.
Understanding these root issues can provide us with a foundation to explore the correct methods to address the growing HIV/AIDS epidemic in today’s youth. Twenty years ago no one knew how to prevent a disease this rampant. Program after program was tried – and many failed. However, unlike the preceding generations, we now have the tool of experience to aid us in our quest to finally conquer this disease.
Not a hopeless situation
One of the most important factors to address when discussing strategies for the future is to recognize that this disease is controllable and that there are programs that have worked and continue to work. This is not a hopeless situation! There are answers and methods that work. As with any truly successful program, a successful HIV/AIDS program is comprehensive. It has the components of education, prevention, risk management, and community out reach. Programs within the schools must be matched by community support – namely health centers and services – that are available to all persons regardless of age and sexual orientation. While prevention and education must be focused around the youth, adults must also be informed and efforts must be made to change societies norms and taboos. The youth look to adults to make decisions and set examples. Without adult efforts and cooperation, programs involving youth are worthless.
Efforts are already being made – and progress becoming evident – from programs implemented worldwide. In the Caribbean, several countries have reported a decrease in new HIV/AIDS patients due largely in part to programs that incorporate education, new health centers, and combining access to condoms with prevention programs.
As the fight against HIV/AIDS marches forward, a few things are certain. The disease will not disappear and the number of people affected by it will only continue to grow. Every day new information, new medication and new programs become available. It is of vital importance that we give our youth every opportunity to access these components. It is also vital that we continue to face up to the taboos within our society and to do our part to help within our community – be it through volunteering or simply educating ourselves on the disease.
Our youth will need a strong support system if they are to face the problems before them. We – the older generation – are the only ones they have to turn to. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” So let us be helpful, supportive and open. We cannot change the world – but we can influence those around us.
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