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Greetings from Messe Wien conference center in Vienna! I am very happy to be writing from the XVIII International AIDS Conference, which I am attending on behalf of YCI. This is my fifth day in Austria and over the past week I have had the pleasure to learn from and work with 300 youth from 95 countries and over 50 organizations at the Vienna YouthForce pre-conference.

To say that the Vienna YouthForce pre-conference has been a transformative experience would be an understatement. The aim of the youth gathering was to empower young participants and provide them with skill building sessions to prepare them for active participation in the main AIDS Conference, which begins today. This gathering brought together an amazing assortment of young activists to network, learn from each other and create a common platform for advocacy at the main conference.

My participation in the pre-conference was a tremendous opportunity to brush up my knowledge on HIV and AIDS and sexual and reproductive rights, and learn more about policy and international advocacy in this area. This falls outside the realm of my daily work and previous experience, and as such I felt inspired and grateful for the opportunity to learn from my peers.

Being around passionate young activists is contagious and I think it’s starting to rub off. During the opening session on “Women’s and Girls’ Issues at the Conference,” the high profile panel did not include any young women speakers, which I found quite unfortunate given the title of the session. Instead of keeping this to myself, as I usually would, I went on the mic and asked that young women be given a voice to talk about their own issues at the conference and called for the need for meaningful youth participation in all sessions that concern them–not only those that are considered a part of the youth programme. I must say, it felt good to speak out and I don’t know if I would have done this if I had not been empowered through my participation at the pre-conference. They did their job well.

The YouthForce describes advocacy as “an effort to change public perceptions and to influence policy decisions and funding priorities. At times, the policies of governments, institutions or organizations create barriers, harm or other injustices for individuals or groups of people.” An extensive e-consultation took place prior to the conference with 312 youth from over 80 countries. Three key priority areas were identified, which are known as the “three HRs”:

The three HRs: Human Rights, Harm Reduction and Health Resources

Many of the specific action points outlined in the human rights and health resources areas relate directly to the programmatic priorities of YCI and its partners at the grassroots level. For example, the Human Rights section calls for:

• the right to confidentiality and no discrimination for young people
• the right to health services
• the right to comprehensive sexual education

YCI’s programs work to link the young people we work with to youth-friendly health services in their local communities and provide them with sexual reproductive health and HIV and AIDS prevention workshops. It’s good to see that we are already working towards these goals from the bottom up. Now, at the conference, we need to work from the top down to ensure that these goals are achieved. Follow my conference adventures via twitter and keep an eye out for another blog post towards the end of the week.

-Lauren Chender, Program Manager

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