The Role of Youth: Reflections from #AIDS2016

“We need to give young people a seat at the table” was a phrase I heard frequently at the 2016 International AIDS Conference  in Durban last month. It’s a frequently heard phrase at other conferences too, and in meetings or discussions which include youth participation.

The strange thing is, the more often I hear it, or read it in an article or see it in a Tweet, the less I feel sure of what the person using it is actually talking about.

What does it really mean, to give young people a seat at the table? And are we doing it well? Are increasing numbers of young people well-positioned to engage and participate in issues that affect their lives or the lives of their peers?

During #AIDS2016 I spoke with many young people – attending the conference in a whole range of capacities and from all over the world – about youth participation in the fight against HIV/AIDS. None of them mentioned seats at tables. What they talked about were concrete examples of how, when and why young people could and should contribute to the global effort to fight AIDS. What they gave were clear arguments about why young people are invaluable components to the global solution.

“I’m here to educate myself more. I now know how to talk to people about HIV” – Thabang Mosoeu, 21

“I’m going back to my community to tell young people who weren’t here about what I’ve learned to spread the information” – Thembelihle Ntombela, 19

“If you are creating any policy that affects young people, young people have to be involved in the creation of that policy” – Fale Lesa, 25

“We need to talke a less moralistic and more feministic approach in addressing issues of HIV with young women!” – Nomtika Mjwana, 25


One message that rang loud and clear from #AIDS2016 was that we all must work to shift perceptions of young people’s capabilities. Rather than being merely the beneficiaries of services decided upon by those with expert knowledge, young people are capable of being trustworthy partners in shaping how society thinks about and responds to HIV/AIDS. Unfortunately, capability doesn’t equate to opportunity, and so it’s no use waiting around in expectation of some momentous shift.

Access to physical spaces where discussions are held and decisions are made – “a seat at the table”– is, of course, one very important piece in the jigsaw puzzle of effective youth participation. But it’s one of many. We have perhaps become so used to saying or hearing this phrase that it rolls off the tongue with a little too much ease and a little too little consideration of the other pieces.

I imagine there are few people who would enjoy sitting around a table with no idea what the others at the table are talking about. Few people would feel comfortable joining a table already filled with strangers who all seem to know one another. Few people enjoy the sense of doubt that comes with wondering if perhaps you’ve taken a wrong turning and walked in to the wrong room.

To provide young people with access and space is important and the worth of doing so shouldn’t be underestimated. But to all those who have ever pulled out a chair to a young person only to tick the box on their checklist that says ‘youth’, I’m sorry to tell you that your work is far from finished. Individuals without tools that equip them to join conversations and contribute to decisions, regardless of their age, might as well not be in that room.

Your checklist needs to look a little more like this:

  • Qualify young people to contribute to conversations taking place at your table.
  • Offer to share your knowledge, then bolster them with the confidence to apply it.
  • Answer their questions and deepen their understanding.

Ticked all those boxes? Then by all means, pull up a chair.

What We Need to Know About HIV & Adolescent Girls

The term ‘adolescent girls’ encompasses, in theory, all those aged 10-24. In reality, the lower section of that age bracket – the 10-19 year olds specifically – receive the least attention and are therefore the least comprehensively catered for when it comes to HIV/AIDS information and services.

So what do we know?

  • There is no country in the world where we don’t have adolescents living with HIV, and adolescent girls remain disproportionately affected.
  • There are 990,000 girls between 10-19 years old living with HIV globally. For boys of the same age, that figure drops to 770, 000.
  • Every hour, 26 adolescents are infected with HIV – two thirds of these are girls.
  • Adolescent AIDS-related deaths are increasing.
  • Very young adolescents are generally overlooked, since at this age they face a relatively low burden of disease. However, 10-14 is a critical life phase for shaping future health and development.

And what don’t we know?

  • There are HUGE differences between 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14 year old girls, but we don’t have data that represents those differences by being divided up into specific age intervals.
  • There are considerable barriers to conducting research with adolescent girls which we don’t know how to overcome. For example, adults are often uncomfortable when dealing with adolescents in general, as well as with sexuality in general. This makes dealing with adolescent sexuality pretty problematic for many.
  • We are confused about adolescent’s ability to provide informed consent. Too often we think of them as children and judge their capacity to consent to research accordingly.

What can we do?

Having a positive image of someone who is older, but not too much older, motivates young adolescents to feel that they belong to a kind of community, and that their hopes and dreams are worth spending time on.

Very young adolescents find it more comfortable and easier to receive information from a peer. Well-informed peer educators can disperse knowledge and skills in a non-intimidating, non-alienating way.

There need to be places for young people to start talking about their sexual and fertility needs. An adolescent girl needs to feel that it’s ok to walk up to another person and say “I’m sexually active”, or “I’m thinking about having sex.” It requires physical space; whether it’s actual chairs where you sit and talk or virtual space that exists online, where dialogues can happen comfortably and openly.

We need to enable and support a shift in  the mindsets of those providing information and care, because too often the values and mindsets of providers conflict with the needs of young people. In many countries, a 14 year old girl coming to a clinic looking for contraception will be met first and foremost with an interrogation about why she is thinking about having sex at her age at all.

The very term ‘family planning’ alienates adolescents, since the whole point is that they’re trying to avoid having a family. What young girls are looking for is contraception and protection.

We need information that isn’t so broad, that’s more age specific. There is no other subject that you’d approach in the same with with a 10 year old and a 13 year old. The best case scenario is that information is either too complex or too simple, and the worst is that it’s patronising, alienating, intimidating, or confusing.

If we truly want to #EndHIV4Her, we need to zoom in on very young adolescent girls and acknowledge their specific needs.

Girls’ Globe is present at the 2016 International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa (17-22nd of July). Follow our team on social media @GirlsGlobe, @FHI360 & @JNJGlobalHealth and by using the hashtag #EndHIV4Her for inspiring blog posts, interviews and updates! To sign up for the daily In Focus Newsletter visit

Cover Photo Credit: World Bank, Flickr Creative Commons

Video Blog: HIV Prevention among Women and Girls in South Africa

In this video blog, Zanele Mabaso speaks about the importance of HIV prevention among adolescents, specifically girls and young women. She talks about the importance of adolescents knowing their rights and understanding HIV, how to get tested and having adequate knowledge of their sexual health and rights.

To #EndHIV4Her: Tackle Child Marriage

To say that child marriage and HIV among adolescents are linked feels a lot like stating the obvious. But I learned today, at Day 3 of the 2016 International AIDS Conference, there is very little formal knowledge to back that claim up.

The overarching message from this morning’s discussion was a simple one; it is really difficult, if not totally impossible, to tackle HIV unless you tackle child marriage. On the one hand, girls and young women make up approximately two out of every 3 new HIV infections among people aged 10-24 years. On the other, 15 million girls per year are married before they turn 18. Two global problems of colossal scale with two sets of similar causes; gender inequality, poverty, rigid social norms, lack of education, inaccessible health information and services. And yet until recently, the relationship between the two has remained pretty much ignored. It was even suggested at one point that this session may well be a historic moment – recognition at last of their interwoven nature.

Girls Not Brides, who hosted the panel, have created a fact sheet explaining 5 reasons why child brides are more likely to be infected with HIV than their unmarried peers. It also suggests 3 things that need to be done in order to end child marriage, and therefore make progress in tackling HIV. It’s comprehensive and clear, and you can read it here.

 The facts and statistics are, of course, vital. But it was the stories of, and comments from, individuals this morning that seemed most powerful and most useful for advocates wondering how best to talk about the link between child marriage and HIV in girls and young women.

One of the panel members was Julia Omondi, a young woman representing Kenyan NGO Family Health Options Kenya. She spoke openly and honestly about real people from her community in a way that powerfully illustrated her arguments for action.

Julia used this story to stress the importance of including already-respected religious leaders in community advocacy and education:

“Where I live, there’s actually a pastor who preaches to the community against child marriage. And because of him, change is happening. Teachers in one school have now said that they don’t want older men hanging around outside the school, as they are luring girls into child marriage. The teachers are taking a stand because the know the pastor. So religious leaders have to be brought in too, they have an important part to play.”

To emphasize the need for education that reaches beyond basic primary education, Julia shared a story of a friend from secondary school. This friend, upon returning to the village she grew up in during school holidays, found that all of her friends had been married. She was the only one from her friendship group who remained un-married, and she was also the only one who had progressed into secondary education.

By grounding arguments in people’s real lives, Julia put forward a case for tackling adolescent HIV by simultaneously tackling child marriage that seemed difficult to contest. So, while more facts and figures are necessary and important, it’s ultimately stories, not statistics, that help us to piece together our view of the world.

Was this a historic moment? It may well prove to be. But only if more people now talk about the ways that child marriage and HIV exist in tandem, and share more stories that humanize the numbers and percentages the way Julia Omondi did today.

More voices are louder and more stories mean a stronger narrative that is more difficult to ignore. And the increased research, the prioritization of adolescent girls in HIV programming, the multi-sectoral national initiatives, the resources needed to empower girls, all of these are changes that will happen when the voices and the stories and the narrative become impossible to ignore.

Cover Photo Credit: Aresenie Coseac, Flickr Creative Commons 

Girls’ Globe is present at the 2016 International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa (17-22nd of July). Follow our team on social media @GirlsGlobe, @FHI360@JNJGlobalHealth and by using the hashtag #EndHIV4Her for inspiring blog posts, interviews and updates! To sign up for the daily In Focus Newsletter visit



Leveraging Social Media to Address the AIDS Epidemic

Yesterday, the Girls’ Globe team attended a session on how digital and social media champions are creating change around the world. The session covered practical ways that HIV/AIDS activists, thought leaders, people young and old can utilize social media to create more reach in their networks and work.

Girls’ Globe blogger, Zanele Mabaso spoke with HIV/AIDS activist, Erica Woodland and Tommy Lobben, Manager of HIV and Digital Health Programs for Johnson & Johnson, after a #AIDS2016 session about the power of digital and social media to create change for those affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Zanele asks them what they learned in the session as well as how they are using social media in their work.

Watch the Video:


Inspiring #EndHIV4Her Videos!


he 2016 International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa on Monday of this week. The first few days have been a whirlwind of excited for the Girls’ Globe team! This week, Eleanor (UK ) and Zanele (South Africa) are sitting down with thought leaders, young people and organizations to learn what we know, do not know and need to know in regards to addressing the issue of HIV/AIDS among women and girls. Below are three inspiring video interviews exploring the progress made for women and girls as well as personal conversations with HIV-Positive mothers and their teens.

Let’s Talk About HIV/AIDS Progress for Women and Girls!

Candid Conversations with HIV-Positive Mothers and their Teens

How Are You Working to #EndHIV4Her?


Girls’ Globe is present at the 2016 International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa (17-22nd of July). Follow our team on social media @GirlsGlobe, @FHI360 & @JNJGlobalHealth and by using the hashtag #EndHIV4Her for inspiring blog posts, interviews and updates! To sign up for the daily In Focus Newsletter visit