Calls for greater youth involvement in anti-AIDS fight

Ethiopia’s youth were on Wednesday urged to join the fight against the HIV/AIDS pandemic devastating the country. Bjorn Ljungvist, the head of the UN Children Fund (UNICEF) in Ethiopia, said young people constituted the "greatest hope" in combating the virus.

His rallying call was voiced during a conference convened at the UN Conference Centre in the capital, Addis Ababa, to discuss ways of boosting the role of young people and that of anti-AIDS clubs springing up in the country.

"Much needs to be done with and by young people to strengthen their capacity to make a difference," Ljungvist told the delegates. "Young people are extremely vulnerable to HIV infection for many reasons," he said, citing risky sexual behaviour, lack of information, and sexual exploitation of girls. "But just as much as young people are at greatest risk, they also offer the greatest hope and are a potential force to curb the pandemic," he noted.

Ethiopia, like many other African nations, has a growing population of people between the ages of 15 and 24, who constitute about 30 percent of the population, and, according to the health ministry, also has one of the largest populations in the world living with HIV/AIDS.

UNICEF says that of every 10 women aged between 15 and 24, one is now infected with the virus, while the figure for men in the same age group is one in 18. "The situation is worse in cities, where as many as one out of every five or six may be infected," Ljungvist said during the three-day meeting, due to end on Friday.

Currently there are some 12,000 anti-AIDS clubs in the country, but UNICEF says they must become more active by obtaining greater support. Among the key issues for young people is voluntary testing and counselling, programmes that have been set up in many parts of the country.

Ljungvist said challenges remained in "effectively engaging and mobilising young people" and in securing financial support for the anti-AIDS clubs. He added that girls and young women must be urged to shoulder a "greater leadership role" in combating and preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Teshome Toga, the minister of youth, sports and culture, expressed support for Ljungvist's calls, saying that boosting the effectiveness the ability of anti-Aids clubs would help in the fight against the virus.

The calls comes just days after Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Botswanan President Festus Mogae joined forces in the fight against the virus. Their two countries are to share experiences and knowledge and learn "best practices" to improve their individual fights against the pandemic.