Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Day 3 - HIV & AIDS

(Dateline: Johannesburg. Posting from the World Summit on Media for Children)
The theme of Day 3 of the World Summit on Media for Children is Health & Wellness, which means that today was largely focused on HIV/AIDS. Dr. Gilda A. Glasinovich, UN Technical Advisor on Immigrant Populations (a well as a physician and oncologist) opened this morning’s session by saying: We are heading into the third wave of HIV, and 13-25 year olds are now the highest risk group. Two-thirds of the new infections here in African will be young women.She called out to all the teenagers and asked them to move forward in the huge lecture hall – this session is for you. Your role in society is to educate yourselves and educate others. The discussion right now is going to be on H.I.V. as it pertains to you.

Everyone moved up front, and we seemed poised for a real discussion that would involve the youngest participants. They are the constant target of HIV/AIDS public service announcements….any South African teen that you speak with will spout the SABC’s message: ABSTAIN, BE FAITHFUL, CONDOMIZE. I was hopeful that today we would get into a discussion about what is working for them, what is not, and how we can be more effective in protecting young people from HIV infection.

Early on, we heard from 16-year-old Lerato Ntuli, of the Alexander Township here in South Africa, who spoke on behalf of the organization FRIENDS FOR LIFE, which has provided support for her since she lost her mother to AIDS and became, in effect, the parent for her younger brother.

I lost my mother when I was only 6 years old…I feel like a lot has been taken away from me. I am only 16, and I am doing things that older people should be doing, because I have a younger brother. He asks me questions, and I don’t even know the answers to those questions. I told my baby brother (13) just the other day that the reason our Mom’s not with us any more is because of AIDS. He cried so much and asked me “Why have you been hiding it from me for so long?” I was trying to protect him, but actually I was shutting him out.

Lerato’s strength created a palpable swell of emotion in the teenagers in the room. She has made a conscious decision to overcome her circumstances and act as an agent for social change.

I have been neglected by a lot of people when I talk about my parents’ situation, but I realize those people don’t push me down, they make me stronger. I can prove to them that I can build myself up, make other teenagers aware that this is just a trial, there are better things to come if we all learn from it.

Unfortunately, we lost the opportunity for real dialogue created by her powerful testimony as a number of other adult speakers followed her, including a delegate from Libya who was determined to talk about a tragic, controversial incident in her country, and refused to yield the mike. By the time we got to “Question Time” for the teenagers, time was very limited and they were rushed through. Although young people came to the microphone and asked questions, the reply was basically “That’s a very good question. Next question?”

Such a missed opportunity. Here are some of the questions that were asked. Despite the fact that they were not answered in the room, we, as media producers, can certainly think about how we contribute to the answers via our work going forward.

• Sonia Antonio, who has been sponsored at this conference by Angolan Television (speaking Portuguese). I have presented a program on public television Angola for the last five years, in which we have the opportunity of dealing with various issues. I am no longer a child (24), but I remain a symbol of children’s issues in my country, because I started on television when I was very young. My question is: What can we, as producers of children’s programs, do to ensure that we sensitize children to the fact that HIV-AIDS starts with each one of us? How can we help them not contract it themselves?

• Nonhlanhla Nellovu (left), age 16, from South Africa, spoke clearly and forcefully. What are we doing about child-headed families – children like Lerato forced to find a balance between education and the sustenance of their families? The media can play an imperative role in making children aware of the resources available to them so they don’t have to resort to unfortunate measures in order to get income.

• Mollie Vincent Louis, from Haiti: Parents don’t give sexual education to their children, so they undertake sexual activity and adventures under the advice of their friends. I would like to appeal to broadcasters to come up with programs that are aimed at delivering HIV information to children. Parents must not hide facts about sex from children, because from about the age of 11, when they’re trying to find an image for themselves, it’s very important to explain to them what sex is all about.

• South African boy, name unknown. We need to go back to our traditions, and if we do, AIDS will not be a problem any longer.

• Mobile Sange Kesadin, South Africa. What about the children who are being abused by their parents, children who are being raped, children who don’t have homes, children who have no one to take care of them.? She broke down, sobbing, was embraced by Dr. Mzamane and Nonhlanhla (the girl who had just spoken about child-led families), and helped from the room.

For all of us who create media that is designed to be used with kids in classrooms, afterschool centers, or youth programs, this represented a worst case scenario – opening the door to an outpouring of feelings from children, then not being prepared to deal with their outpouring. I walked outside to talk to some of the teens that I had met earlier in the week, to get their reaction.

Nonhlanhla said angrily, What a waste of time. They have been saying since day one that they wanted to hear from us. Today is the first time we have had an opportunity to speak. I had a huge list of questions. There is no time for serious discussion.

Mpho Moshweu, age 18, of the Northern Cape, Kimberley Youth Support Program, is one of the very enthusiastic group that I met on the first day (in the white shirt, above). He was outspoken today, much more pragmatic and action-oriented than many of the adults I have talked with here. I don’t see how this can be a successful conference without any resolutions. Is there someone who is going to take this forward? We should be given tasks going forward, so that we can report when we get together again in 2010.
Mpho (pronounced mmmm-PO) also questioned the lack of connection between the conferences (the 4th World Summit was held in Rio in 2004). Where are the delegates from Brasil, telling us their conclusions? Mpho’s assessment on the abbreviated “discussion” of HIV was succinct and devastating. When you are addressing issues, you must know that time is not important. We will stay as long as the matters are being solved. What is the benefit of all those experts, if nothing is solved?

I think this raises a question, going forward, as to what is the purpose of inviting children to the Summit. Do they belong at a professional conference? If so, why are they not at a table with the adults? A mature teenager who brings real insight and potential input needs to be respected. Let’s not be guilty of killing their optimism and enthusiasm.

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