Asia-Pacific youth demand robust action to lower the HIV risk of young key populations

Youth advocates from 14 countries have called on governments and development partners in the Asia-Pacific region to adopt a comprehensive approach to addressing the high HIV risk now borne by young key populations. (Key populations are groups that are particularly vulnerable to HIV. They include men who have sex with men, people who use drugs, sex workers and transgender people.)

Held on October 20 and 21 in Bangkok, the 2nd Asia Pacific Youth Forum was co-organized by the Thailand Ministries of Public Health and Foreign Affairs, the UNAIDS Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific and Youth LEAD. Among other priorities, delegates advocated for more youth leadership, equitable access to quality and youth-friendly healthcare services, stronger strategies to tackle stigma and discrimination and increased access to funding for youth-led and key population programming.

UNAIDS data reveal that in 2021 there were an estimated 260 000 new HIV infections in Asian and Pacific countries. According to a recent report by UNAIDS, UNICEF, UNFPA and Youth LEAD, young people aged 15–24 years accounted for 26% of these cases. In some countries including Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, the Philippines and Thailand, more than 40% of new infections were among youth. HIV transmission to young people rose for seven countries in the region since 2010—Afghanistan, Fiji, Malaysia, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and Timor-Leste. Strikingly, in the 15 – 24 age-group, almost all (99%) new infections regionally were among people from key populations and their partners.

“Preventing HIV, STIs and all emerging diseases among young people requires addressing the root causes that put young people at risk, including gender-related, socio-economic inequalities, and stigma and discrimination,” said Mr. Satit Pitutacha, Thailand’s Deputy Minister of Public Health.

Ms Eksiri Pintaruchi, Director-General of the Department of International Organizations in the Thailand Ministry of Foreign Affairs highlighted the work of the Thai Network of Young People Living with HIV including providing peer support for young key populations, linking them to services, offering life skills training, mental health support and psychosocial care.

UNAIDS Asia and Pacific acting Regional Director, Mr Taoufik Bakkali said: “We need to address the inequalities that create vulnerability. By investing in youth today we will not only achieve a win for the HIV response, but also significant progress for the Sustainable Development Goal agenda.”

Youth LEAD’s Project and Networking Officer, Legee Tamir, noted the crucial need to increase spaces for youth leadership, especially as young key populations are still left behind in national, regional and global decision-making spaces where their voices would make a difference.

Participants of the 2nd Asia-Pacific youth forum, “Putting young key populations first”, held from October 20 – 21, 2022 in Bangkok, Thailand

On day one of the forum youth delegates convened to share experiences. They noted legal and policy barriers including the age of consent, concerns about privacy and confidentiality and stigma and discrimination among healthcare providers. The opening hours of public clinics are not convenient for young people and services are not tailored to meet their needs.

The consultation resulted in nine recommendations which were presented to government and development stakeholders on the forum’s second day. They are as follows:

  1. Strengthen the leadership and meaningful engagement of young people, including young key populations and young people in all their diversity, within the HIV response
  2. Increase awareness about existing HIV and sexual and reproductive health and rights programmes for young key populations
  3. Engage and collaborate with stakeholders (including governments, the private sector, communities, media) in advocacy campaigns
  4. Ensure equitable and convenient access to HIV services, including for youth in rural areas, and modernise HIV services 
  5. Tackle harmful stigma and discrimination in household, education and healthcare settings through funding and partnering with efforts led by young key populations that address deeply rooted traditional beliefs and practices 
  6. Review and reform laws and policies that affect young key populations and ensure they are aligned with international human rights norms and recommendations
  7. Ensure the availability and accessibility of quality, youth-friendly and non-discriminatory programmes and services that ensure the mental wellbeing of young key populations
  8. Invest in the organisational strengthening and sustainability of youth-led organisations at different capacities
  9. Empower youth-led organisations and create more conducive, flexible and simpler processes to access opportunities for external and domestic funding

UNAIDS and its regional partners through the Asia Pacific Inter Agency Task Team on Young Key Populations will use this set of recommendations to inform future initiatives for young key populations in the region.

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