Just when I get beyond discouraged about the seemingly endless divisions tearing societies apart around the world, World AIDS Day reminds me of the remarkable impact the international community can have when it decides to unite around a shared aspiration. The fact that new HIV infections have fallen by more than 20 percent since 1997 is a powerful tribute to the government leaders, community workers, businesses and foundations, medical researchers, and courageous individuals who have joined forces, and mobilized resources, to end the scourge of AIDS.

I had the chance to see the terrible impact of this global epidemic—and what is possible when people work together to address the problem—during a trip I made five years ago to Tanzania and Uganda. I went to meet some of the more than 32,000 young people who were being trained as “peer educators” in their communities—the result of IYF’s HIV/AIDS prevention work in Sub-Saharan Africa supported by USAID’s PEPFAR initiative. When I asked a group of trainees if someone close to them had died of AIDS, almost all of them raised their hands. Many of their families had taken in young family members and other children who had become orphans as a result of the disease.

As always, I was stunned by the courage and commitment of these young people who were actively spreading the knowledge they had gained about HIV/AIDS prevention to their friends and neighbors in the local villages. One of the most compelling arguments they gave to their peers was that if you stop having unprotected sex and begin to lead a healthier lifestyle, you will be more likely stay in school and get a good job.  I still stay in touch with one young woman I met on that trip who continues to educate her friends years after her training ended.  “I never forget to spread the word about how to prevent the spread of AIDS whenever I have the chance,” she says, “whether it’s in school, in church, or on the streets talking with prostitutes.”

It’s important to remember that while the prevalence of young people with HIV has fallen by more than 25 percent in the most effected countries, they remain a highly vulnerable segment of the population. Unfortunately, young people are still not sufficiently engaged in helping to shape AIDS prevention programs or policies. Today we received a message on IYF’s website from a man in South Africa who has lost hope in his government’s commitment to address the issue of AIDS in his country. “The awareness campaigns are not effective, and there lacks a youth voice in these interventions and political will as well,” he says. “My view is that involving youth and improving the awareness campaigns will have a huge impact on reducing the disease.” And of course, he’s right.  

In a recent speech, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that current efforts have set the stage for an historic opportunity “to change the course of this pandemic and usher in an AIDS-free generation.”  She acknowledged the horrendous toll this disease has taken on people’s live and communities but reminded us of all we have learned over the years —how the disease spreads, how to prevent new cases, and how to ensure that getting the disease no longer translates into a death sentence. “This worst plague of our lifetime brought out the best in humanity,” she said.

Realizing the dream of an AIDS-free generation is within our reach, and I’m pleased that IYF programs continue to promote the health and wellbeing of youth across Africa and beyond.  But clearly much work is yet to be done, and young people must be full partners in that ongoing struggle.