Youth conference attendees kicked off the first day of the 2006 International AIDS Conference with a morning session entitled "From Rhetoric to Action: Defining a Stronger Role for Youth in National and International Policies. Youth leaders – many of whom had participated in the 3-day Youth Pre-Conference – called on world leaders to address the impact of HIV/AIDS on youth and to support an increased role for youth in policy and decision-making at the national and international levels.
Peter Piot of UNAIDS, Josee Verner, Minister of International Coorperation, Canada, Dr. Frenk,. Minister of Health, Mexico, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, First Lady of Honduras, and Julian Bond, Chairman, NAACP discussed their priorities for youth in the fight against HIV/AIDS before fielding questions from participating youth leaders from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and North America. The youngest panel member was an 11-year old girl from Nigeria who highlighted the stigma her HIV+ peers face from their classmates.
The increase in youth participation and leadership at this year's conference marks a significant shift from past conferences. Only four years ago – at the International AIDS Conference in Barcelona – a mere 1% (200 out of 15,000) of program participants were under 30. But with more than 50% of new infections worldwide affecting people 15-24, youth participation in the world's largest gathering of AIDS scientists, advocates and activists is essential. This year more than 1000 youth are attending the conference. They will lead skills building workshops, present abstracts, speak on panels, and continue to meet with top world officials in dedicated dialogue sessions.
This change is largely the result of the hard work of YouthForce – a coalition of youth-led and youth-focused groups which came together in Barcelona at the 2002 AIDS Conference determined to increase international attention to youth and HIV/AIDS. Today young people sit on the Conference's governance and planning communities, have formed a Youth Rappoteur Team to report on the Conference from a youth perspective, have created a full Youth Program to support young people's participation throughout the Conference, and will benefit from the Youth Pavilion – a youth dedicated space in the Global Village. Youth are determined to push the conference message "A Time to Deliver" home to world leaders this week.