Bold leadership and inspiring stories of youth-led networks in Asia and the Pacific as they find ways to adapt to COVID-19 and deal with uncertain futures

Youth-led networks in Cambodia, India, Viet Nam and the Philippines distributing COVID-19 prevention packs, IEC materials on HIV prevention and leading training sessions on mental health awareness

Health systems and communities have been pushed to the breaking point by the coronavirus pandemic that the world was woefully unprepared for. Nearly two years on, networks of key populations and people living with HIV are still at the forefront of the COVID-19 response, working around the clock to ensure communities have access to timely and undisrupted HIV services. Among them is Youth LEAD, the network of young key populations from Asia and the Pacific, which in 2020 established the YKP COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund to support youth-led initiatives across Asia and the Pacific.

One of the beneficiaries is Ya_All, an LGBTQ+ youth-led organisation based in Manipur, India. “The second COVID-19 wave hit North East India really hard as it did across the country. We saw health care systems collapse in front of our eyes. This greatly affected our work as we saw more and more young key populations experience delays in accessing HIV prevention services and saw an increase in mental health issues,” describes Sadam Hanjabam, Founder and Chief Functionary of Ya_All. Thanks to the Emergency Relief Fund, Ya_All supported 300 young LGBTQI and key populations to access tele-counselling services in five districts to help them overcome depression and mental health issues.

Since the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Emergency Relief Fund has helped youth-led and youth-serving organisations implement programmes that ensured young key populations and people living with HIV were not left behind in the HIV and COVID-19 response. This included providing essential food and PPE supplies, information on HIV and COVID-19 prevention, continued access to HIV prevention and treatment services, including mental health, establishing harm reduction programmes, seed-funding for transgender-led business, housing, and supporting digital and peer-led initiatives.

Funded through the Robert Carr Fund, AIDS Health Care Foundation and UNAIDS Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, the Emergency Relief Fund has supported more than 20 projects from 15 youth-led organisations across the region, which has made a considerable difference in the lives of young key populations.

The Viet Nam Young Key Populations Network is one of the beneficiaries of the Emergency Relief Fund in Viet Nam. Even though the country was in complete lockdown for a substantial period, with a seed grant the network managed to produce HIV and SRHR digital educational content for young people at risk of HIV and network members, distributing harm reduction materials to 15 provinces across the country.

Similarly, YPEER Pilipinas, another beneficiary of the Emergency Relief Fund, trained 1000 young people on HIV combination strategies and screened more than 900 young people for HIV. With the small grant, they were able to scale up the #GetCondomPH Programme, which resulted in successfully distributing more than 11,000 condoms across the Philippines.

In Cambodia, KHANA has given mental health support training to more than 70 LGBTIQ+ leaders, including 15 young key population leaders. The training accelerated ongoing mental health peer support to key affected populations who were experiencing mental issues throughout the COVID-19 crisis. “Online counselling sessions on how to cope with mental health issues were incredibly helpful. The YKP COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund was an effective mechanism that allowed us to provide timely support to young people in need of HIV prevention and other health services,” mentioned Phorng Chanthorn, Senior Coordinator at KHANA.

These few examples out of the many show that young people, communities and civil society play a crucial role in pandemic responses, helping HIV programmes rebound and adapt to COVID-19 rapidly. Still, these efforts have not been easy. “Youth networks are trying to find ways to recover, adapt and effectively lead in this new funding landscape that has resulted in greater competition for donor funding. Many programmes, including this one, showcase the impact and necessity of supporting youth-led HIV programs and initiatives. However, it’s not enough,” explains Vanessa Monley, Programme Officer at Youth LEAD.

In 2020, young people accounted for 26% of new HIV infections in Asia and the Pacific. 99% of young people in the region who acquire HIV belong to vulnerable, key populations and their partners. In some countries, close to half of new HIV infections were among young people, and less than 50% of young gay men and other men who have sex with men, young transgender people, sex workers and young people who inject drugs have accessed HIV testing in the past year alone. “It is critical to find innovative ways to continue to scale up access to HIV services for young key populations in the context of COVID-19, ensuring that we do not return on achieved gains, and respond to the additional issues that have come with the pandemic like mental health and social support issues. UNAIDS is fully committed to supporting youth-led responses and ensuring their sustainability as we work collectively to end AIDS by 2030,” says Taoufik Bakkali, Regional Director of UNAIDS Asia Pacific.

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