Ending HIV epidemic through capacity building: young people advocate stepping up SRHR services

Education as a Vaccine (EVA) in collaboration with Association of Women Living with HIV/AIDS in Nigeria (ASWHAN) and Association of Positive Youths Living with HIV/AIDS in Nigeria (APYIN) conducted a capacity building workshop for 30 young advocates from Benue State and the Federal Capital Territory in furtherance of its Adolescents Girls and Young Women Project under the PITCH, Partnership to Inspire, Transform and Connect the HIV response. PITCH is a strategic partnership between AidsFonds, the International HIV/AIDS Alliance and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Through the training, their capacity was built in advocacy and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights with particular focus on HIV/AIDS and how it affects adolescent girls and young people.

Among the countries with highest HIV infections, Nigeria is ranked second and listed among the 35 ‘Fast-Track’ countries that ‘together account for more than 90% of people newly infected and 90% of people dying from AIDS-related causes worldwide. Of the roughly 160,000 young people of adolescent age (10-19) living with HIV in the country, girls and young women show highest prevalence. For those aged 20-24, the infection rate of females (4.5%) is more than double that of their male counterparts (1.9%). Out of the 3.1 million people living with HIV, 1.72 million are females indicating that women and girls are worst hit by the epidemic. Women in the reproductive age bracket have the highest prevalence.

In Benue State, there is an Adolescent Health Development Plan that addresses issues of young people’s sexual reproductive rights which has been less prioritized. Furthermore, a degree of progress has been made over the years in terms of the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS in Nigeria. Nevertheless, Nigeria is still encumbered by stigma in particular, to vulnerable groups like adolescent girls and young women living with HIV/AIDS. This constitutes a major threat to the gains and outstanding opportunities to end the epidemic.

The trained young advocates in Benue state will lead on an advocacy plan they co-developed targeting key decision and policy makers in the state on the implementation of the Benue State Adolescents Health Development Plan and the Anti-Stigma Act 2014 that will address the discrimination adolescent girls and young women face at healthcare facilities, institutions of learning and places of employment.

The young advocates will also sensitize other young people including adolescent girls and young women living with HIV/AIDS in the state on their rights and how they can exercise them.

Additionally, lack of Age of Consent laws and guidelines have been identified as a key barrier to uptake of HIV/AIDS services by adolescents and young people. Lowering the age of consent on HIV testing and counseling among adolescents will increase HIV testing, and hasten the initiation of treatment options for girls and young women who may already have contracted HIV. Likewise, the cost of accessing services has denied adolescent girls and young women access to health care services.

In the FCT, the young people’s advocacy targeting decision and policy makers will focus on lowering the age of consent on SRH services to between 10-12 and the removal of user fees for those living with HIV/AIDs in health facilities. Thus, they will hold Federal Ministry of Health accountable on their mandate to provide free services for those living with HIV/AIDs in all public facilities.

“I learnt more about HIV/AIDS and the 90-90-90 target which said that the first 90% of people living with HIV will be diagnosed and tested. The second 90% will be placed on treatment and there will be 90% suppression in viral load. Also, some of the myths of HIV/AIDS I held were dispelled. With my capacity built in advocacy, I can now embark on actions that influence decision making”, Abah Maria, a young advocate said.

In his words, John Bernard, another young advocate recounted, “for the first time, I learnt that mother to child transmission can be averted. I also learnt about advocacy whereby I could boldly stand and advocates for girls and young women in the society or community where I find myself. By that, I have a vision that with the help of advocacy, we would have built a generation that would be free from HIV stigma and discrimination”.

With the transfer of skills and knowledge, according to Patrick Enwerem “we expect them to in turn, spearhead an advocacy that will help improve the SRHR of Adolescent Girls and Young Women living with HIV/AIDS in the FCT and Benue State”.

EVA and its partners understand the fact that with the right support, those directly affected are best placed to drive the advocacy. Young people who were trained as advocates include young people representing key populations and those who are not. They will be supported throughout the advocacy process.