Youth HIV Summit in Botswana: Young people to lead youth-led HIV response

After the success of the inaugural event in Botswana in March 2017, Sentebale has delivered its second edition of Youth HIV Summit 2019. Held at the Masa Square Hotel in Gaborone, Botswana, on 13th and 14th August, the forum was facilitated by young people determined to engage in open discussions in efforts to drive solutions to end the HIV epidemic through a youth-led HIV response.

The two-day event brought together 70 young people and 20 adults among them Sentebale Co-Founding Patron His Royal Highness Prince Seeiso, the British High Commissioner Ms Kate Ransome, heads of the United Nations and international organisations, senior government officials including a representative from Office of the President, and media.

HRH Prince Seeiso said the summit was an opportunity to guide the interventions that would have a high impact on young people. In reference to Sentebale’s Let Youth Lead (LYL) advocacy programme – whose motto is ‘Nothing for us without us’ – Prince Seeiso said that the organisation believes young people are best placed to develop and lead initiatives for the desired change.

Despite Botswana’s excellent progress in achieving the UNAIDS 90–90–90 treatment targets, young people remain highly vulnerable to the virus with about 69% of new HIV infections occurring among persons aged 15-34 years, according to government statistics. Girls and women aged 15-34 are particularly at risk of HIV infection and account for 75% of new infections among all women.

Richard Matlhare, National Coordinator of Botswana’s National AIDS and Health Promotion Agency (NAHPA), told the audience he found these statistics “shocking”. During his keynote address, Mr Matlhare encouraged young activists and volunteers to become strong players in the future of the HIV response by shaping health services and support “tailored to their needs”.

“I was excited to receive an invitation to be part of this significant event where young people are given a platform to discuss challenges related to HIV as seen and felt from their perspective. This is an opportunity which you should take full advantage of. For this reason, we at NAHPA appreciate initiatives by Sentebale to highlight the importance of youth engagement.”

“We never leave out the young people of Sentebale when we develop policies and programs for young people and we will continue to seek their guidance on how to address some of these issues for their optimal benefit.”

“An AIDS-free generation will remain out of reach if the global community does not prioritise adolescents. In Botswana, we believe that the National AIDS response must include adolescents and invest in strengthening and monitoring protective and supportive laws and policies to enable high impact HIV interventions. Sentebale’s promotion and support of advocacy skills among young people will contribute towards empowering the youth to deal with challenges that predisposes them to increased vulnerability to HIV infection and adherence failure once they are on treatment.” Mr Richard Matlhare, National Coordinator of Botswana’s National AIDS and Health Promotion Agency

Key activities during the summit included a review of school outreach programmes, panel debates and group sessions during which young people shared their experiences and concerns, and a discussion about the role of the government in supporting adolescent and youth HIV programs. Young HIV advocate Masedi Kewamodimo, who found out she carried the virus when she was 10, reminded policy-makers present “young people need to be involved at the beginning of programmes not in the middle”.

During discussions, young people articulated key issues that contribute to their vulnerability towards HIV infection, including weak parent-child relationships particularly as they grow older, but highlighted how social media today can be used as a tool to empower this generation. Describing how she uses social platforms to share her status with the view to motivate and empower other young people particularly those who are still struggling to accept their status, South African HIV activist Saidy Brown said, “I have learned to embrace HIV and I want to change the narrative of how a young black person lives with HIV. HIV is life changing but not life limiting”.

The First Lady of The Republic of Botswana, Mrs Neo Masisi, who was appointed UNAIDS Special Ambassador for the empowerment and engagement of young people living with HIV earlier this year and has embarked on an HIV/AIDS education roadshow across the country in which Sentebale participates, officially closed the summit.

“I am here because this meeting is focusing on a group of people I care about. I have learnt so much from this event. It’s been a diverse and packed programme,” Mrs Masisi said in her closing remarks.

“You are beacons of hope. We will support you but you are the only person who has the power to achieve what you want. Life is a journey. You need to wear new lenses if you are to help achieve an AIDS-free country. I acknowledge and appreciate all the work done by Sentebale. Sentebale is a hidden gem. Another meaning for LYL is Love You Lots! Thanks for your positive and vibrant energy. Make sure you reach out and touch others to spread the message.”

Summing up the event, Sentebale chief executive Richard Miller said the meeting represents the best of Sentebale and demonstrates its ability to reach from the grassroots to national and international level advocacy.

“Our role is to give a platform and amplify the voices of young people. It’s Sentebale’s strength and rootedness at the local level that gives it credibility at national and global level – one doesn’t work without the other,” he said. “The presence of the First Lady gave us strength and encouragement and helps to demonstrate the importance of our work. Prince Seeiso was with us from beginning to end. He showed his commitment as Patron isn’t just a paper exercise – he actively engages, supports and encourages us.”

Addressing the youth advocates, Mr Miller added, “Be brave, take risks and use what you have learnt. You have made me proud to be chief executive of Sentebale but let’s not rest here. Let’s look to the future and we will use your idea to help grow and develop the work of Sentebale. It’s been a great two days. Thank you.”