A heart that’s willing to lead

A heart that’s willing to lead

By Mercy Ngulube, IAS Member and youth activist

I never thought I would ever live a life where I was an openly HIV-positive activist. However, if we are serious about addressing the HIV epidemic, we need to equip the next generation of activists to take on the battles that must be won.

If we are being truthful, young activists lack economic empowerment. Asking young people to add value, use their time and skills in return for "exposure" is no longer good enough. Allowing young people to take on roles of leadership positions that have no meaning, other than to fill a box, is a failure to understand the importance of investing in the future. If we are serious about young people being (as they already are) future leaders of the movement, we should start treating them as such.

As World AIDS Day turns 30 this year (and I’ve now been around for 20 of them), I can’t help but reflect on what World AIDS Day meant to the younger version of myself. One, in particular, stands out.

It was a seemingly normal day when, as always, I had gotten ready for school. I had reluctantly taken off the "excess" make-up my parents would complain about, eaten my breakfast and taken my first dose of ARVs for the day.

As a teen, I really struggled with that part of the day ... the reality of taking medicines that I hated, and not having a process to understand the emotions, but walking out the door to meet my “squad” to walk to school where I was just like everybody else.

Except, this was a different type of day. I watched the news every day before I left for school. This time, I was met with a surprise. World AIDS Day was being featured. I will never ever forget the reporter talking to children (who were on the other side of the world) about their medicine, diagnosis and life with HIV.

Though those children lived a drastically different life to mine, somehow I managed to feel understood. I didn’t feel that the emotions I had been feeling were crazy. I didn’t feel that I was the only teenager in the world having to manage life growing up with HIV. It was also the only day in my house that I felt that I could talk about HIV without panic from my parents or confusion from my sister who didn’t know my status.

I have personally come so far since that World AIDS Day. I truly hope that World AIDS Day will someday become redundant, but I am reminded of how far we still have to go. I find that in so many of the conversations I have with people about HIV, there is an impression that AIDS is over and it is a thing of the past. Yet young people are a key people group in which infection rates are increasing.

If we are to truly address the epidemic, we have to continue to fight for comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights and healthcare, well-being and education. We’ve ultimately failed to protect young people at risk of HIV if we’re having conversations around pre-exposure prophylaxis that don’t involve or serve our young people. As a young person living with HIV, it spurs me on to do so much more to be a part of this fight and take on these battles.

Today, I’m so inspired to think of all of those who’ve gone before me – and paved the way for what the HIV response looks like today. To truly honour those who have fought and advocated for what we have, we need to keep our eye on the ball and seek out opportunities to understand and engage the next generation – to continue to build. This begins with a conversation, an ear that’s willing to listen and a heart that’s willing to act.