By Hassan Zaggi
The relevance of the involvement of young people in any venture, most especially, when it comes to health issues, cannot be overemphasized,
It is for this reason that the National Agency for the Control of AIDS (NACA), the United Nation Children Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nation Agency on AIDS (UNAIDS), yesterday in Abuja, called on the private sector to invest in adolescent in the area of HIV response.
It would be recalled that in 2016, it was estimated that about 10 per cent, which is about 240,000 of the total number of people living with HIV are adolescents. This is huge considering also that Nigeria has the second largest number of adolescent and young people with HIV. Large proportion of new infections occur between the ages of 15 and 24.
The most worrisome aspect is that Nigeria has no mechanism for preventing new infections, enrolling and retaining young people in treatment fast enough.
However, many believe that with their strong drive, idealism and fresh ideas, young people can introduce new solutions to the challenges.
The event was targeted at private sector engagement, promoting adolescents’ and young people’s participation in HIV response.
The event brought together key stakeholders working on HIV response in Nigeria as well as members of the private sector. The role of private sector using its influence to drive change was the main focus.
Speaking, the UNICEF representative in Nigeria, Mohammed Fall, described young people as engine for development who desperately want their voice to be heard and also need to have a place around the table.
He insisted that governments at all levels owe it a responsibility to ensure that their voices are heard and also have them around the table.
Fall, however, vowed that UNICEF was ready to support the government of Nigeria and NACA in the partnership to increase the response of young people and get the involvement of the private sector in this endeavour.
Speaking about what the young people can do, Fall said: “What we have witnessed in UNICEF mainly in our HIV prevention work across Nigeria is that they can be mobilized, they can be leading a process of social change and we have seen them also as drivers of many changes in the society out of the public health arena.”
The UNICEF Chief therefore charged the private sector to contribute their quota in ensuring that young people are involved in the HIV response programme .
“Today, we are here to invite our friends from the private sector to join in this venture. What we have observed in recent history is that most changes are driven in many cases by state or by government entity, but what we have seen today is that the changers, mainly those that are having more and much impact in our history are driven from the private sector and not any more from the state only.
“This is the opportunity we want to take and invite the private sector to join us with their ability to innovate and their ability to change, their ability to impact on people’s lives as we have witnessed.
“I want to take this opportunity to reassure you that UNICEF, base on its mandate and at the same time based on the knowledge and experience we have acquired through our HIV adolescent prevention programme, we stand ready to contribute in this effort, we stand ready to strengthen this partnership and we stand ready to take this opportunity that we have in Nigeria to show the way, to set the blue print that will not serve only Nigeria, not only the African continent, but will serve the rest of the world.”
On his part, the Director General of NACA, Dr. Sani Aliyu, lamented that the high rate of HIV infection among young people was partly due to lack of knowledge in HIV prevent measures.
According to him: “There was a survey that shows that only one third of young people were able to correctly identify prevention measures. There is also lack of access to sexual and reproductive health.
“There are other issues including early sexual debut is a problem, inter-generational sex is also a problem because the older you are, you are more likely to have the resources to be able to get young partners and at the same the young partners will not have the ability to negotiate sex effectively.”
He further reiterated that: “For Nigeria to get on top of the HIV epidemics, it cannot ignore its young and adolescent. It’s a population that is growing.
“We have reached a stage that we know that when it comes to programming , it is middle age people should step aside to ask young people what is the best way to programming within the youth and adolescent population.
“I am pleased that UNICEF, NACA, UNAIDS had come together in partnership with Population Council to embark on what is really a very key initiative to try and engage adolescent and find out their needs when it comes to HIV and decide on the most effective way of intervening.”
While advocating the support of the private sector, Dr. Aliyu said: “We are inviting the private sector to leverage this opportunity to invest in adolescent. We are inviting the private sector to put money where we are most likely to get the highest impact when it comes to HIV prevention.
“The expected output of this event is a commitment by the private sector, stake holders and partners to use the considerable amount of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and other special funds to invest in the implementation of this participation module.
“This will not only ensure that we get the most demographic dividend across all development sectors. I will encourage the members of the business community, the private sector to help us in this endeavour.”
Speaking also, the UNAIDS Country Representative in Nigeria, – Dr Erasmus Morah, charged the young people to venture into business rather than rely on while colar jobs.
He insisted that it is “Not too young to run businesses.”
He recalled that there used to be a time “when people go to school and graduate in Nigeria and get a loan, get a house and all kinds of things just because you graduated. Such days are gone.
“Today, we are hoping to educate people who will not come and just say because I studied Library Science, I should work in the library. Those days are gone. University teaches you to be self sufficient, to be innovative, to be enterprising, to have the tools necessary to look after yourself and your community.
“So, you are not too young to run businesses. You are not too young to be infected with HIV.”
He, however, lamented that: “The data we have shows largely that young girls between the ages of 15 to 24 sometimes have higher risks that are 8 times more than that of their young male cohorts.
“These young women are infected by slightly older men between the ages of 7 to 11 years older. So not that much older which they call them sugar daddy.”
Dr Morah, lamented that young people are being left behind. “When you look at the figure, Nigeria has over a million people under treatment, we are leaving the young people and children behind in terms of treatment.
“So, not too young to be infected and being left behind and that is what we want this meeting to give a clear message, being young is an opportunity for the nation,” he said.
Speaking on behalf of the private sector, Gbenga Alabi, noted that his group was ready to engage the young people not only in HIV response but in other areas.
“For us at the private sector, we appreciate the fact that the youth are the leaders of tomorrow and that is why we have to engage them. Not only engaging them, effectively engaging them.
“Some years ago, we spearheaded what we call meaningful engagement with People Living With HIV/AIDS. We are ready to engage the youth, not only in HIV but other areas,” he reiterated.
The event which was well attended by young persons from across the country culminated in the award ceremony of the winners of the Adolescents’ and Young People’s HIV challenge in Nigeria.
The competition which was organised by NACA, Population Council and UNICEF, was held to enable meaningful participation of adolescents and young people in the HIV response in Nigeria. Three winners were presented cheques of one million naira each during the ceremony.