Youth challenged to continue to advocate change concerning health care access 

From the CARICOM Secretariat

GEORGETOWN, Guyana – The Pan-Caribbean Partnership against HIV and AIDS (PANCAP), the mechanism that provides a structured and unified approach to the Caribbean’s response to the HIV epidemic, commenced the Second Regional Meeting of Youth Leaders on Sexual and Reproductive Health and HIV and AIDS May 18 in Port-of-Spain, Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.

In his opening remarks, Director of PANCAP Dereck Springer lauded the PANCAP Youth Steering Committee for developing and executing the agenda and methodology for the meeting. “This is clear indication of your growth since the first meeting of youth,” he said. “I wish to commend the entire Youth Network for taking definitive steps in advocating for the priority areas identified at the previous meeting.”

The priority areas included (1) the dissonance between the age of sexual consent (16 years), and the age for independent access to health care (18 years); (2) the implementation of comprehensive sexuality education in all schools in the Caribbean; and (3) gender inclusive laws that protect victims of sexual exploitation.

The PANCAP director highlighted the additional progress since the first meeting, which included the establishment of the PANCAP Youth Advocacy Steering Committee and a specialized training workshop held in January 2018 designed to equip participants with skills to develop an advocacy strategy. He shared his expectations that the meeting would reach agreements on innovative and practical actions for advancing the key priority areas identified in the Caribbean Regional Youth Advocacy Framework (CRYAF) on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, as well as on key issues for advocacy within their respective countries. He urged the youth advocates to collaborate with the PANCAP Coordinating Unit, other stakeholders and each other to implement those actions. Springer indicated that PANCAP would facilitate their participation in high-level fora.

PANCAP Youth Advocacy Steering Committee Chair Kevin Mendez stated that he has experienced significant positive change in his life since, as a gay man, he is able to openly share his story and experience in the Caribbean, which has legislation that “impede on the rights of LGBT [people].” The chair thanked PANCAP for creating a safe space for youth to have discourse and create a plan of action for regional advocacy.

He further stated that the meeting would focus on creating effective methods to advocate for the aforementioned key issues, which he believes, have a direct impact on the quality of life of young people, especially young key populations: young gay men, men who have sex with men (MSM), and transgendered people, who have the highest HIV prevalence in the region.

Mendez further explained that in “the last year, with the support of PANCAP and the Youth Advocacy Steering Committee, we have received the mentorship to improve our advocacy skills to address our priority areas in our country context.”

He challenged participants to actively participate in discussions, invited them to be open and comfortable to share their challenges and opportunities in advocating for change. He also explained that the forum will be important for formalizing initiatives and effective communication among the youth network.

“One country cannot move ahead of another,” he said. “Our issues, our needs are the same and you are all brilliant and passionate key players from whom we can learn and share a wealth of knowledge. We are one young Caribbean family and as such we have the responsibility to work together at the country level and as a region.”

In addition, he reminded participants that in 2017 there was a 1 percent increase of HIV infections among young men. “This HIV epidemic is killing our youth, our friends and families and our society,” Mendez said. “We have been told we are the future, but with HIV and HIV-related discrimination, our tomorrow in not certain. This is our time to take action, work together, stay informed and be real.”

During remarks, André Browne, dean of the CARICOM Youth Ambassadors Programme (CYAP), stated that the CYAP can function as a key resource for reaching youth and gathering youth voices at a decision-making level for all matters regarding CARICOM.

He highlighted that PANCAP has understood the need for Caribbean Youth Ambassadors (CYAs) to have opportunities to get together to share experiences, plan activities and receive the training they need to ensure their efforts are effective in their communities.

Browne explained that PANCAP has been a key support for the programme, bringing together CYAs with other youth to discuss ending AIDS since 2017. He revealed that for most of the CYAs present at the inaugural meeting, it was the first time they were able to meet in person. “Deans before me have effusively sang the praises of PANCAP and rightly so, the PANCAP leadership’s dedication to youth involvement is remarkable and must be applauded,” stated the CYAP dean. “From carving out a space for us in the form of these youth meetings to ensuring we have a voice at high-level decision-making meetings such as the PANCAP Regional Coordinating Mechanism (RCM) and Executive Board, and building our capacity through the recently concluded Local Capacity Initiative (LCI), even allowing us the use of their online platform for meetings.”

He told the audience that his goal is to renew the charge to the youth participating in the meeting, particularly the CYAs. “The meeting comes at a time when 15 to 24-year-olds account for one-third of new HIV infections in the Caribbean, and at a time when almost half (46.2 percent) of Caribbean young people ages 15 to 24 did not have adequate knowledge about HIV, and at a time when two of five (38.6 percent) young people ages 15 to 24 did not use a condom the last time they had sex,” Browne said. “It is time we act.”

He challenged participants to utilize the forum to formalize an actionable plan based on the CRYAF particularly on comprehensive sexuality education, access to care for youth and creation of gender-inclusive laws. He emphasized that the forum is another positive step to achieving the 2030 goal of zero AIDS among adolescents and the 90-90-90 targets.

In her keynote address, youth advocate Terry-Ann Roy of Alliance for Justice and Diversity advocated for the removal of laws that discriminate against sexual and gender minorities, and prevents them from accessing proper health care and information through fear of stigma and discrimination.

“We have to join forces in all areas of our activism because these issues intersect with each other,” Roy said. “When LGBT [people] are discriminated within the law, this affects how they navigate the health-care system and how they access the necessary information to prevent contracting HIV as well as treatment if they need it. These laws do not only affect gay people, but also those who are also listed as key populations in PANCAP’s own initiatives to end HIV and AIDS.”

She explained that these people include sex workers, trans women, people living with HIV (PLHIV), MSM, young women, girls and neglected people who do not have access to these services. “We must recognize how these issues interconnect and work together, unite to combat these discriminatory laws and demand better policies and modified legislation,” she said. “This is why we are here today and this why we will continue to return to get the necessary information to arm ourselves and approach these policy makers and parliamentarians with our demands. I stress on demands because we are entitled to these rights. It is written in all our constitutions: the right to freedom of expression, liberty, equality before the law, family life and dignity. Simply echoing that some laws are not enforced do not grant us the dignity we deserve.”

The opening ceremony was chaired by Alexus D’Marco, vice chair of the PANCAP Youth Steering Committee. The meeting comes approximately one year after the first meeting of Youth Leaders and two years ahead of the 2020 deadline for reaching the 90-90-90 targets.  It is expected to culminate with the development of advocacy supporting tools and materials for youth to advocate at the highest-level for the end of AIDS by 2030.

PANCAP is a Caribbean regional partnership of governments, regional civil society organisations, regional institutions and organisations, bilateral and multilateral agencies and contributing donor partners that was established Feb. 14, 2001. PANCAP provides a structured and unified approach to the Caribbean’s response to the HIV epidemic, coordinates the response through the Caribbean Regional Strategic Framework on HIV and AIDS to maximise efficient use of resources and increase impact, mobilises resources and build capacity of partners.

What are the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) 90-90-90 targets?

  • By 2020, 90 percent of all people living with HIV will know their HIV status.
  • By 2020, 90 percent of all people with diagnosed HIV infection will receive sustained antiretroviral therapy.
  • By 2020, 90 percent of all people receiving antiretroviral therapy will have viral suppression.