Thirty years after the first diagnoses of what would later be called AIDS among gay men in the United States, the face of HIV/AIDS has changed radically. One in three new HIV infections in the United States and half of new infections globally are among young people, and girls are particularly at risk.
Why? Because the majority of the world’s youth, especially young girls, are entering adulthood without the knowledge, power and tools they need to protect themselves from disease and from becoming parents before they are ready. These young people don’t have what they need because people in positions of responsibility are uncomfortable talking about young people having sex, especially when it means talking directly with young people.
We must and can do better. On World AIDS Day, we must stand strong with youth around the world to demand that they have what they need and deserve to protect themselves and their health — starting with quality sex education, access to condoms and birth control.
A number of obstacles stand in the way of these simple goals. First and foremost is a reluctance to face adolescent sexuality head on, both at home and around the world. Nearly half of American teens are sexually active, and in many developing countries marriage during adolescence is the norm. Why deny reality and keep potentially lifesaving information from these young people, leaving them defenseless?
Second, funding for HIV prevention and services in the United States and overseas remains needlessly segregated from other reproductive health programs. On the ground, this can mean a woman has to go to one clinic for HIV services and another for family planning, or worse, that women seeking obstetric and family planning services are not offered HIV screening, while women seeking HIV services are not offered contraception.
As taxpayers, we should demand our money be spent more efficiently. HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment services should be offered in the same settings as family planning and other sexual and reproductive health services. Young people need help to avoid both HIV infection and teen pregnancy. And to be able to provide this, we need increased funding for sexual and reproductive health programs that cover both family planning and HIV.
Third, young people lack access to information and services. Here at Planned Parenthood of Illinois we are working to break down those barriers. We offer HIV testing, counseling, and education services, and sponsor a peer education program aimed at educating young people about sexually transmitted infections, teen pregnancy, and more.
Real sex education and youth-friendly services save lives. Our commitment to this work is driven by the knowledge that helping young people avoid pregnancy and disease early in life enables them to stay in school, pursue meaningful careers and benefit all of society. To secure a healthy future for us all, we must invest in youth today.
President and CEO
Planned Parenthood of Illinois
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, World AIDS Day