Last August, during World Youth Day in Madrid, I was conducting outreach to encourage Catholic youth to use condoms. It was there that I heard one of the most frightening things ever: One young man told me that an HIV-positive person had no right to have sex.
It wasn’t the first time I had heard such disparaging comments about people living with HIV. Shocking as it was, this conversation was instructive. It reinforced the importance of the work my colleagues and I have been doing alongside a number of organizations worldwide, particularly Advocates for Youth, in speaking out for the more than 215 million women and girls who face an unmet need for modern contraception and the 16.5 million women of reproductive age who are living with HIV.
Worldwide, too many young people are still being denied access to essential services and commodities such as modern contraception, condoms, and HIV treatment.
As I’ve seen through my outreach and advocacy in Jamaica, the heartrending thing here hasn’t been so much a matter of limited funding. Rather, as young people, our access is too often restricted on the basis of inadequate and ideology-driven programs, policies, and laws.
It’s almost as if the existing data about our needs—even when the evidence stares policy makers right in their faces―are irrelevant.
Within this context, women and girls and young people living with HIV are severely and disproportionally impacted. They aren’t provided the resources they need to avoid HIV transmission, prevent unintended pregnancies, and plan desired pregnancies. Just as important, they aren’t respected as central stakeholders in their own health care outcomes—as change agents that can help transform their communities for the better.
Ultimately, the reproductive health needs of young people living with HIV aren’t so unique. After you factor in our age, sexual orientation, location, income, and HIV status, we all want to have the same things. Young people living with HIV want access to friendly services that are free from stigma just as much as the young person who is not HIV-positive, and just as much as the adult for whom policies around reproductive health are usually more favorable.
Stigma and discrimination make things needlessly complex for a young person living with HIV. While I have met a number of young people who have been bold enough to demand resources on the local and governmental levels, many others are too dis-empowered to do so. I have seen too many young girls scoffed at (at health clinics, no less) because of an unplanned pregnancy―and the discrimination is almost always exacerbated when these young people are HIV-positive.
Why must we be so cruel? It costs nothing to respect people living with HIV. It takes no effort to show compassion. We aren’t so naïve. Why should we continue to deny young people living with HIV the right to live happy, healthy lives like everyone else? We all have to play our part in advancing the rights, welfare, and dignity of young people living with HIV.