Since the United Nations High-Level Meeting on Ending AIDS in 2016, the young key populations’ movement and its visibility have grown considerably in Asia and the Pacific. Through their engagement with national and regional networks of key populations, more and more young people have taken up space in decision-making processes and in mobilizing resources to support local and national organizations. However, despite those important efforts, more needs to be done to meaningfully engage young key populations in the HIV response as leaders, beneficiaries and partners.
UNAIDS data from 2019 alarmingly shows that 27% of all new HIV infections in Asia and the Pacific were among young people. Young gay men and other men who have sex with men accounted for 52% of all new HIV infections among young people. Overall, 99% of new HIV infections among young people were among young key populations and their partners.
A side event held on the sidelines of the United Nations High-Level Meeting on AIDS, held in New York, United States of America, and online from 8 to 10 June, looked at the progress made and challenges in the HIV response and emphasized the critical role of young people in leading change and promoting successful and innovative approaches to the HIV response.
The speakers and panellists stressed that significant barriers exist for young key populations to access HIV testing, treatment and prevention services and routine sexual and reproductive health and rights services in the region. Those barriers include a limited availability of differentiated HIV services for young key populations, stigma and discrimination, punitive laws and other legal barriers that leave young key populations on the margins and out of reach of HIV services. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to widen existing inequalities and service gaps, but thanks to the engagement of community-led organizations, populations at higher risk of HIV, including young key populations, were able to access essential HIV and health services.
The speakers and panellists noted that young people are showing us the way to revolutionize HIV prevention and increase the uptake of HIV services by implementing new strategies and innovations that cater to the specific needs of young people. During the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations led by and serving young people, such as the Lighthouse Social Enterprise in Viet Nam and the Human Touch Foundation in India, have been at the forefront of the HIV response, providing HIV services in partnership with the local government to the communities that need them the most.
The team at the Human Touch Foundation, a community-based organization in Goa, India, that provides care and support to adolescents living with HIV has, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, organized volunteers to deliver antiretroviral therapy to people’s doorsteps. Moreover, the organization played a critical role in getting the local government to waver public transport costs to ensure that people living with HIV had access to treatment. With the increased anxiety and depression brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Human Touch Foundation offered psychosocial support services to adolescents living with HIV, both in the form of online counselling and in-person consultations.
Similarly, the Lighthouse Social Enterprise, a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) organization led by young people based in Hanoi, Viet Nam, has been instrumental in providing differentiated service delivery to young key populations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the services it provides at its clinic include HIV counselling and testing, post-exposure prophylaxis, pre-exposure prophylaxis and antiretroviral therapy. The Lighthouse Social Enterprise also established a referral service to ensure that young key populations are linked with other health services, such as sexually transmitted infection testing and treatment, mental health support and harm reduction services. What makes the Lighthouse Social Enterprise unique is that the clinic is entirely run by young people. Health-care workers are given training by the Lighthouse Social Enterprise team on LGBTI and key population needs and issues in order to ensure that services are youth-friendly and free from stigma and discrimination. Last year, the Lighthouse Social Enterprise provided services to more than 3000 members of young key populations in Viet Nam.
The side event was an opportunity for different organizations led by and serving young people working on HIV-related issues to share experiences and define common strategies to keep HIV on the political agenda at the national and municipal levels.