Author: Lilian Kiefer, August 14 2014 - Adolescence is a defining period in the growth of a young person. Supporting young people to successfully navigate this stage of life can help break the cycle of poverty and produce great benefits for individuals, communities, and countries.

During adolescence, a growing person has the possibility of being exposed to life risking activities such as unprotected sex, early marriage and abuse. It is also during adolescence that most individuals discover their real worth and status when it comes to whether they are HIV positive or negative.

During the recent International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2014) held in Melbourne, Australia, from 20th to 25th July 2014, representatives of hundreds of entities involved in the fight against HIV and AIDS reflected on the adolescent epidemic. It is a fact that while adolescence is a time of having dreams and possibilities, it is also a time of confronting great risks, particularly for girls.

Adolescent girls face the risks of early childbirth and marriage, dropping out of school, and acquiring a variety of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS. These consequences diminish the opportunities of adolescent girls and jeopardize their future.

According to a UNFPA [United Nations Population Fund] Adolescent Report for 2013, Zambia ranks as the 5th highest in terms of the prevalence of teen pregnancies in sub-Saharan Africa, with an average of 17,600 young girls dropping out of school per year. The pattern remains high in all Southern African Countries, demanding the need for strategic responses to arrest the situation.

Addressing the AIDS 2014 conference, UNAIDS Executive Director, Michel Sedibe challenged the world to end AIDS by 2030. He shared his vision as: voluntary counseling and testing reaching everyone, everywhere, each person living with HIV reaching viral suppression, no one dying from AIDS or being born with AIDS and people living with HIV living with dignity and protected by laws. In sharing this vision, Sedibe cited HIV as the leading cause of adolescent mortality in Africa, and emphasised the need to accelerate prevention efforts especially among adolescents.

And during a SADC satellite session at AIDS 2014, Dr. Fabian Cataldo, a social anthropologist and Senior Research Scientist for Dignitas International presented research findings of a study that explored psychosocial as well as sexual and reproductive health (SRH) needs of adolescents aged 10 to 19 living with HIV in Southern Africa. The study identified gaps between needs and available SRH and HIV-related initiatives. Interviews with a total of 1,977 adolescents and 164 parents, guardians, and health care workers participated revealed that there are limited HIV/AIDS services for adolescents, both for prevention and treatment. Counsellors trained on how to deal with the special issues of adolescents are available in only a few sites offering youth-friendly SRH or HIV services.

While the need for adolescent-friendly services and to integrate SRH with HIV/ART [antiretroviral therapy] services is well acknowledged, such important initiatives remain scarce and under-funded, with younger adolescents often overlooked or ignored. Most adolescents who were born with HIV feel isolated and unable to talk freely about HIV with their friends and families. Parents and guardians of HIV+ adolescents also feel ill-equipped to discuss the status of HIV positive adolescents. In addition, taking ART represents a daily challenge for these children, especially when they need to take the medication at school or outside the home.

At Panos Institute Southern Africa (PSAf), we believe that adolescence is a critical stage of human development. In this phase, children experience rapid social, physical, psychological, and emotional changes on their path from childhood to adulthood. The decisions made during this period of life affect not only the individual well-being of young people, but also the well-being of the entire society. It is crucial to ensure positive household and community environments where children will thrive during adolescence, as they transition into adulthood and bring great benefits to the community.

PSAf takes these critical reflections on adolescence seriously, and in the ongoing projects on Child Protection aims to empower communities to support adolescent, thereby also stepping up the pace in addressing the adolescent HIV/AIDS Epidemic.

Lilian Kiefer is the Executive Director of PSAf. This article was first published in the Zambia Daily Mail.  For feedback, email lilian@panos.org.zm.