Today, Africa has the youngest population in the world. An estimated 20% of the population or more than 200 million people in Africa are young people aged between 15 and 24 years and this number is expected to continue growing.
The rising number of a youthful population coupled with the demographic dividend, presents a gigantic and unique opportunity for Africa’s socio-economic advancement, including health.
However, this opportunity is not being handed over to us on a silver platter, we must make strategic and urgent improvements in education and skills development, employment creation and health, amongst other key areas to profit from this.
Without which, even the gains that we have made so far may not be guaranteed into the future.
Now in its third decade, Africa continues to be disproportionately burdened by the AIDS epidemic. Whilst a lot of advancements have been made in HIV treatment and vaccine, coverage of ARTs and mother to child HIV transmission, there is growing concern of increasing HIV incidences among the youth population (15-24 years). In 2018 only, 157,000 adolescents were newly infected with HIV.
This is an alarming state of affairs and speak to the urgency with which we should start to engage the youth to tackle the epidemic.
The youth have been structurally marginalized in the HIV response in Africa but now is the time to create space on the table for youth in discussions to address the epidemic.
We can no longer afford to ignore this important demographic if we are intentional about ending the epidemic.
Engaging the youth needs to be more than asking for their opinions or creating platforms for them to speak their minds about HIV. Whilst this is important and perhaps a good starting point, African governments have a responsibility to do more to address the social determinants of HIV amongst the youth.
High levels of poverty and unemployment, lack of education and adequate skills to function effectively in the job market, gender inequality and inequity and harmful cultural practices contribute towards HIV vulnerability for the youth.
For instance, there are glaring differences that can be observed in the rates of HIV incidences between young boys and girls in Africa. The UNAIDS estimates that four out of five new HIV infections in Sub-Saharan Africa among adolescents aged 15 and 19 years are in girls and that young women aged 15-24 years are twice as likely to be living with HIV compared to men their age.
To eliminate these differences, women and young girls will need to empowered to negotiate safe sex, factors leading to gender-based violence should be addressed, equal access to sexual reproductive health services should be granted as well as equal employment opportunities.
Poverty and its concomitant barriers is one that must be strategically addressed among all youth. Opportunities for social mobility need to be created through education and skills development.
Youth at the lowest wealth quintiles are more at risk of HIV infection compared to their counterparts from the middle or highest quintiles. Poor youth suffer a double burden of an impoverished life compounded with lack of equal access to healthcare services.
Ending the AIDS epidemic is not a dream but a reality that is perhaps closer than we realize. With a multi-dimensional AIDS responses that cut across all socio-economic sectors and truly focus on the youth, we can have an AIDS free generation.
This is a critically defining moment for Africa in many ways. We stand to gain a lot from the growing youth population and we must not let the AIDS epidemic get in the way.
Time is now to develop youth responsive programs and initiatives that are truly centered on addressing every aspect of the social determinants and drives of HIV among the youth.
The writer is the Chairperson of the Rwanda Civil Society Platform & Executive Director at Never Again Rwanda, a Peacebuilding &Social Justice Organization. He is also a Public Health Practitioner. Twitter @JosephRyarasa