On International Youth Day, giving a voice to marginalized young people

To celebrate International Youth Day on 12 August, UNAIDS talked to Thaw Zin Aye, a youth leader from Myanmar who is based in Bangkok. Thaw works with Youth LEAD, a network in Asia and the Pacific that works on human rights issues and advocates for the rights and needs of young key populations.

UNAIDS: Could you tell us about your personal journey and how you became engaged in youth issues?Thaw: When I was about 15, I was interested in development work but was unsure about which field I was interested in. I knew I was interested in caring for children and that interest deepened after I volunteered in an orphanage, where there was a group of children living with HIV, who no one wanted to play with. I was very affected by how they were being treated and I realised then that I wanted to change things.That’s how I became interested in public health especially in HIV related work. Organizations like Youth LEAD didn’t exist 4-5 years ago. There has never been a focus on young people living with HIV as well as marginalized youth like young people who use drugs, young gay men, men who have sex with men and young transgender people. They just talked about the youth in general. That’s when my colleagues and I started Youth LEAD as a pilot project.

UNAIDS: In Asia-Pacific, we see many cases of women still being treated differently, as a woman, what do you have to say about that? Have you ever encountered any difference in treatment just because you’re a woman working in this field?

Thaw :In many places, women are still treated as second class citizens. They are never given equal status as men. If a family had to choose between sending a daughter or son to school, they would always choose to provide education for their son. Imagine what the future holds for young girls who are not educated? I have to work harder than anyone else to prove myself so that no one challenges me just because I am a woman. I don’t want that gender stereotype so I have to work even harder to avoid that.

UNAIDS: This year’s theme is youth civic engagement. How do you think young people can participate in civic engagement?

Thaw: I think it is really important that young people engage in civil issues because a lot of policies affect us and the way we access services. Young people are not just the leaders of tomorrow, but today too. We talk a lot about engagement but we also need to make sure that they have the capacity to engage meaningfully.

UNAIDS: Not enough people from key populations at higher risk of HIV exposure are getting tested for HIV, what can be done to encourage more testing?

Thaw : We need to make sure that they are aware of the consequences of not testing for HIV and  also that they are ready for the results and treatment if they turn out to be HIV positive. It is also important that their family is supportive and encourages them to test regularly for HIV.We need to change the age of consent policy for HIV tests.  Many countries in Asia-Pacific still require parental consent for young people under 18 . Evidence shows that young people are having sex, some are even engaging in risky behaviour at 14-16. Would they want to bring their parents to get tested for HIV? How weird is that? Policies need to change to encourage people to get tested. Health care providers have the responsibility to provide young people with friendly services and not to harass those who come to get tested or be judgemental towards them.

UNAIDS: What advice would you like to leave for the youth of today?

I read somewhere that you only live once, but if you live it right, once is enough. If you really want something, go and grab it.  Follow your dreams and don’t ever hold yourself back. I never knew being where where I am today would be possible. Never knew that I would some day be designing Youth LEAD but look at where I am now. Everything is possible, believe in yourself. You are capable of things far beyond your imagination.

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