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World Aids Day

BELIEVING IN & MAXIMISING THE POTENTIAL OF YOUNG PEOPLE

A message from Fr Michael Lewis SJ, President of JESAM
(Jesuit Superiors of Africa and Madagascar)

Harnessing the ability of young people to take good decisions and to act wisely and compassionately is crucial to face up to the AIDS pandemic. The African Jesuit AIDS Network (AJAN) firmly believes that young people have this potential however they are often denied the chance to fulfil it.

On World AIDS Day 2016, AJAN wants to reiterate its conviction that fighting AIDS is not only about sex; neither is it just about fighting a virus. It is about promoting integral human development, not least among young people, to allow them to live their own lives to the full and to contribute actively to bringing about an AIDS-free society.

AJAN is promoting such development through AHAPPY, a fascinating and innovative life-skills program with a Christian and value-based character, which has been piloted in Catholic schools and other educational institutions in nine countries across sub-Saharan Africa. In an evaluation conducted in 2015, the AHAPPY program was lauded for bringing about concrete changes in the lives of young people coming from diverse faith backgrounds.

Through AHAPPY and other programs, AJAN is contributing to the goals of the Start Free, Stay Free, AIDS Free campaign spearheaded by UNAIDS to end AIDS specifically among children, adolescents and young women by 2020.

The focus on young people, especially adolescents, is rooted in the fact that they are so badly affected by AIDS. The statistics are sobering. The incidence of new infections remains particularly high among adolescents: an average of 29 adolescents are infected every hour worldwide, and girls account for 75% of new HIV infections among this age group in sub-Saharan Africa. In this continent, AIDS is the leading cause of death among adolescents.

This disturbing reality prompted AJAN to develop a methodology and tool kit to prevent HIV infection among youth. However we are also concerned about some other responses, such as the 'Comprehensive Sexuality Education' (CSE) for schools, proposed by some international organisations. AJAN is not alone in voicing this concern: parents worldwide have come together in groups to stop CSE and a major Stop CSE campaign has been launched.

It is unwise to assume that young people have decided to be sexually active and to offer a simplistic response based on this narrow assumption. Young men and women search for the best life has to offer but often are thwarted in their endeavours by their circumstances. To think otherwise does not do justice, neither to young people nor to the complex root causes of AIDS. It is far from enough to dole out contraceptives and information.

This is especially so in an "information-driven society which bombards us indiscriminately with data - all treated as being of equal importance", to quote Pope Francis. The AHAPPY program aims to encourage critical thinking and the growth of mature moral values among young people, so that they will be able to make healthy choices in all aspects of their lives.

Part of the universal appeal of AHAPPY lies in the genuine care for each student who does the program. Perhaps this is especially so for young people who are struggling to cope with the fact that they have HIV, a condition generating multiple needs that call for specialised professional attention and much love.

As a network belonging to the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), AJAN subscribes to the tradition elaborated by its founder, St Ignatius. In October, Pope Francis addressed the 36th General Congregation of the Jesuits in Rome, and said: "Where there is pain, there the Society (of Jesus) is."

This is why AJAN, as a Jesuit mission, perseveres its "work of mercy" to minister to people who are living with HIV and to prevent others from becoming infected by a virus that causes pain far beyond its physical manifestations. Young people are vital partners in this mission of ours. Today, we celebrate their contribution, we thank them, and we urge more and more young people to come forward to join the struggle against AIDS.