YOUTH BLOG: Brian, My Panel Experience

As a youth advocate, I had an opportunity to attend different interesting sessions during the International AIDS Conference at Durban in July 2016, and to represent the voices of young people who face stigma and discrimination, especially those in my home country, Uganda.

But the most important session was the opportunity I received to join the panel discussion during the special session titled “Ending AIDs with Voices of Youth” with Prince Harry, the Founder of Sentebale and Sir Elton John, the Founder of the Elton John AIDS Foundation, plus other incredible young people living with HIV.

21st International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2016), Durban, South Africa. Special Session (THSS01) Ending AIDS with the Voices of the Youth: How Stigma and Discrimination Affect Key Populations , 21 July, 2016. Photo©International AIDS Society/Rogan Ward

Panel, ‘Ending AIDS with the Voices of the Youth: How Stigma and Discrimination Affect Key Populations’, International AIDS Conference 2016 ©International AIDS Society/Rogan Ward

This opportunity came from Sentebale, who had seen me speak at one of the sessions during my Youth Stop AIDS Speaker Tour in the UK earlier that year. I took part in the speaker tour because I wanted to make difference in the world. I wanted to join the youth across UK to advocate for access of medicines for all, tell my story of living with HIV to inspire youth to take action and motivate politicians and decision-makers across the world to support the fight to ends AIDS by 2030.

I grew up in an orphanage because I lost both my parents in 2000 when I was 6 years old. When I was a bit older, I started falling sick on and off. I then got a continuous, severe rash and sometimes my skin could just peel off like a snake. I always stayed covered. Lonely and very scared, I didn’t know what was happening to me until I was at school one day and they saw my sickness and sent me back to the orphanage. That’s when they took me to the hospital and I was diagnosed with HIV. I was 11 years old at that time.

For many years I faced stigma and discrimination and the side effects of medicine. I lived in a world of loneliness until I became an HIV advocate, activist, leader and inspiration to many other young people living with HIV across the world. As a young person, I have worked with many organizations and companies focusing on health for young people and adolescents, economic empowerment and business management. I am a leader and representative of young people on different committees, technical working groups at both community and national level in Uganda, and now work as Resource Mobilization & Capacity Building Officer with the Uganda Network of Young People Living with HIV (UNYPA). I have lived with HIV for 22 years.

At the Durban AIDS Conference special session, at first it was frightening because it was a big leap to go from small and low profile audiences to a very crowded room full of the world’s VVIPs, all waiting to hear what I would say to them. As a youth advocate chosen to contribute to the panel discussion, it was so nerve-racking, especially thinking about all those eyeballs looking at me.

21st International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2016), Durban, South Africa. Special Session (THSS01) Ending AIDS with the Voices of the Youth: How Stigma and Discrimination Affect Key Populations Brian Ssensalire, 21 July, 2016. Photo©International AIDS Society/Rogan Ward

Brian during the panel discussion, International AIDS Conference 2016 ©International AIDS Society/Rogan Ward

But after realising that this was once in a life time opportunity, I had to lift myself up, do some research, and prepare for the discussion. And, very importantly, be myself throughout the discussion.

So, before, during, and after the panel I had chances to speak, share and discuss with both Prince Harry and Sir Elton John. I mainly wanted to know what they thought about stigma and discrimination. And guess what? Hearing what they had to say was the greatest experience I encountered.

“The world relies on each one of us to re-commit ourselves in knowing our own HIV status, educating ourselves about HIV/AIDS,” Prince Harry said.

Sir Elton John also emphasised that “People should not be ashamed of who they are, young people across the world should advocate towards non-discrimination.”

During the panel I also recognised that young people have crucial views and experiences, which allow them to be the driving force behind these developments. I called upon all the young people across the world to take all advocacy opportunities that come their way, to play an active role and to be responsible citizens of their countries. Fellow young people, I hope you heard.

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