Collaboration is our Currency

I spent a week in Trinidad at the PANCAP Third Regional Meeting of Youth Leaders on Sexual and Reproductive Health and HIV and AIDS. I interacted with other young people with such a diverse range of backgrounds, experiences, and passions. These all fit together and blended so well into commonalities that the experience proved quite enjoyable.

One concept which stuck with me from the first day and throughout the rest of the week was Collaboration is our Currency’, as presented by Terisa Taylor from Jamaica. This succinctly embodied the progress that we can make with concerted efforts at local, national, and regional levels. Andre Browne from St. Vincent further cemented this for me with a quote from Robin Jones Gunn: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Exploring issues such as the current state of adolescent sexual and reproductive health in the Caribbean and the existing legal frameworks which hamper education campaigns, reaffirmed what we all knew – we need to strengthen partnerships and pool resources to advance our goals.  Participants shared some very insightful experiences in their advocacy work, some of which spoke straight to my heart and re-energised my spirit to go back home and help push for more. We spoke of innovative ways to tackle and address social health issues, and we shared personal stories in and out of the meeting room, which helped us learn and appreciate each other.

Most importantly, however, we committed to becoming better organised as youth leaders and advocates for the representation that our fellow youth deserve.  We also committed to being the ones to sit with our older adult colleagues currently occupying spaces of power and help them see past the assumptions and prejudices which distort policy-making on sexual health and ultimately, our future within our region.

While we closed off the four-day event, a single mantra repeated itself in our subconsciousness: Nothing for us, without us.” We were ready to move forward.

Swipe right: Young people dating and living with HIV

I was diagnosed with HIV when I was 18. I started being an activist three months later, basically, at the same time, I started taking antiretrovirals. Since 2015, I have worked as a social mobilization advisor, focusing on youth at the Ministry of Health in Brazil.

I was 15 years old in 2006 when I had my first cell phone. At the time, technology was not being used to address issues related to sexuality. I come from a rural family. They did not know a lot about technology and there was strong resistance to embracing technology. In parallel to this, I was curious. I started using MSN for sexual networking – exchanging photos, making video calls and getting to know people.

In 2009, at the age of 18, I moved to São Paulo. I was dazzled by the city, its rhythm and its intensity. Soon, the parties started and, with them, the relationships. I was already completely in love with the world of technology and I used it to make new friends and to meet dates who circulated in the same tech universe. What I loved most about using technology was the speed at which everything happened.

My sweetheart at the time fell ill. My world froze. I was overwhelmed by doubts and uncertainties. He was hospitalized and his health deteriorated. He got worse day by day and then he passed away. During that period, I felt apathetic, tired and dull. I observed that my hair got thinner and that something was not right with my health. It was a matter of days before I was diagnosed with HIV. From there on, my life changed.

I struggled to accept my diagnosis and I joined a Facebook group of young people living with HIV. Here, people living with HIV were welcomed, listened to and helped by other young people. The Facebook group was incredibly strong; it has also developed into a powerful political and activism tool.

I realized that technology was used for various purposes and I wondered, why not use it to reach young people and promote attitudinal changes around HIV? Day by day, I found ways to do that by partnering with dating apps to promote the spread of sexual health information.

“The stigma, prejudices and discrimination against people living with HIV in dating apps are very quiet. You feel it slowly, in small doses, when you realize that people do not send messages to you, that no one sends pictures or has any kind of interaction with you when you reveal your HIV positive status.”

Recently, this has changed. People are more open to discussing HIV in dating apps and they also seek information, especially on PrEP. Dating apps provide an excellent opportunity to reach out to young people and increase access to HIV information, making it available at any time through banners, messages, pop-ups and other resources. Enabling HIV and prevention information to be linked to a profile makes conversations on the subject lighter and more natural.

This includes newer features, such as a field that allows you to show your HIV serology, whether or not you use PrEP and when you had your last STI test. These features are key to changing behaviour and attitudes surrounding HIV through apps.

I became an ambassador for an app and promoted prevention through the partnership. This was, in fact, the app that my husband approached me on. It was an important moment in our lives, not just because this is how we connected, but also because the app served to improve his knowledge about HIV and helped change his attitude.

We started dating in that period and we got married this year. I live with HIV and he does not and we are adept at U=U (Undetectable = Untransmittable) and combination

Youth shaping their destiny

From 30 July – 2 August 2019, I participated in the Third Regional Meeting of Youth Leaders in Port-of-Spain, Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. This is the last episode of a journey that started back in 2017 when PANCAP set in motion a project to support and connect young advocates of Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH) and Rights in the Caribbean region. Over the course of these two years, a steering committee was formed. Meetings and training activities were held. People came and went, but those who stayed during this last meeting demonstrated how strong the bond had become and how commitment and growth can happen when you support talented young people to work together. The agenda of the meeting was designed by the steering committee members with the support of the PANCAP Director, Dereck Springer and the PANCAP Knowledge for Health project.  Many inspirational stories were told, there was so much to learn from experiences including using social media to raise awareness about discrimination to the monitoring of public services by key populations and so much more!  In all of this, young people were leading the way. On the last day, I heard one of the older assistants say “there is a very high level of skill among these young people”.

There is surely nothing for us without us

My name is Njemile Webb, and I am the Youth Advocacy Leader of Comtalk International, Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. I have been performing Advocacy work for almost all of my teenage years because of my passion for helping others and making a difference as it relates to HIV and AIDS.

My experiences being at the PANCAP Youth Leaders Meeting has been nothing short of amazing.  There was constant reinforcing of knowledge. I have had the pleasure of networking with other Caribbean Young Leaders where information and statistics at country-level are shared as it pertains to young persons.

I have noted that there is still a lot of work that has to be done within the Caribbean region, our continued dedication and aspirations as young leaders are just a few of the mechanisms that would assist with our target goal.

Life in advocacy can be challenging at times, but with adequate guidance and a positive approach, the target goal will be accomplished.  I am motivated and propelled to my task at hand, which is assisting the young persons within my country on all issues.

I am Trinidad and Tobago, and by extension, the Caribbean region. Together as youth leaders, we can make a positive change. There is surely nothing for us without us.