Recently, Applesta Maryann da Costa was selected to attend the 2022 Asia Pacific Youth Forum: Putting Young Key Populations First to End AIDS by 2030, in recognition of her extensive work as the head of operations for Human Touch Foundation since 2018, providing for the psychosocial needs of adolescents living with HIV/AIDS. The young Goan psychologist who hails from Varca was part of a group of 31 youth participants at the forum held in Bangkok from 20-21 October. The aim of the forum, which was to revitalise, re-engage and increase the collaboration and commitment of stakeholders on the HIV response for young key populations, was held by the Government of Thailand, UNAIDS and Youth LEAD, supported by UNESCO and UNDP. Applesta was the moderator of a panel discussion “Good practices by young key population in the region”.
Applesta, who obtained her MSc in Clinical Psychology from St Agnes College for Post Graduate Studies and Research, Mangalore (affiliated to Rajiv Gandhi University), studied psychopathology, theories of personality, psychological assessment, counselling and psychotherapy, family and group counselling, health psychology, and participated in clinical and fieldwork in psychiatric hospitals and clinics before joining Human Touch Foundation in Goa.
Becoming part of an NGO that caters to the betterment of people living with HIV/AIDS and supports youth living with HIV/AIDS more intensively, takes empathy that is stronger than what most people possess. “My parents taught me to look out for those in need. To help people who struggle in the community. This is a value I closely hold on to,” says Applesta, whose penchant for observing human nature most profoundly as a child led to her deep interest in human behaviour and the psychology behind it all. “It was my favourite pastime. Curiosity and passion lent a helping hand. Amalgamating both, it was clear that I wanted to pursue a career in psychology. As a psychologist, I wanted to create safe spaces for individuals to seek support for their mental well-being. It is satisfying to see that I can make a difference in the lives of others. Being a psychologist, I want to play my part in creating happier, healthier communities,” she says.
Expressing gratefulness for her involvement with Human Touch Foundation, which has enriched her experience as a psychologist, Applesta articulates that the organisation has allowed her to provide adolescents and youth with the mental health services of which they were in dire need. She explains, “I was successfully able to integrate psychosocial support in the HIV care continuum, where each therapeutic session is tailored to meet the needs of A&YPLHIV (Adolescents and Young People Living with HIV).”
Working with Human Touch Foundation has enabled Applesta to learn about various services that will let their young clientele have facilities for good health, well-being and basic human rights within their reach. “It gives me the satisfaction that I can reach out to young people who are in most need of care and support through the initiatives of the organisation,” she declares.
Society stills hold a great deal of prejudice against PLHIV (People Living with HIV) with a lack of HIV literacy being a major factor. Being part of the Human Touch Foundation has provided access to appropriate HIV literacy, which Applesta can in turn promulgate, generating awareness among the public at large. “Advocating for the needs of A&YPLHIV has been my biggest achievement. As a young advocate, I have spoken at various high-level meetings and webinars conducted by different UN Agencies, speaking about the work of Human Touch Foundation, the needs and challenges of young people in the space of Covid and HIV (dual pandemic), mental health, gender equality, social protection, rights and so on,” she tells us.
Participating in the 2022 Asia-Pacific Youth Forum was indeed a remarkable opportunity for Applesta as she was the first young person from Goa to be invited. This young advocate for adolescents and young people living with HIV saw the forum as a platform to emphasise the needs and challenges faced by these young people, especially the young key population from India. She says, “I feel honoured and happy to have been selected to represent India at an international level.”
The 2022 Asia-Pacific Youth Forum has certainly afforded her a wealth of experience, gaining a broader outlook on the obstacles that impede a positive HIV response. Twenty-six per cent of new infections were found in the age group of 15-24 years in 2020. Despite the availability of different services, those most in need of HIV prevention, treatment, care and support are unable to avail of it.
Applesta says, “Young people lack the appropriate knowledge needed to make informed decisions. The introduction of age-appropriate comprehensive sex education in an educational setting is the need of the hour. Investing in education for young people as well as training teachers to deliver appropriate knowledge is much needed.”
What needs to be urgently rectified are laws and policies that affect PLHIV. The age of consent to access varied services needs to be re-examined.
India has neglected to stress the urgency of prevention strategies. There needs to be more than just condom distribution. Better access to PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) and PEP (Post-Exposure Prophylaxis is of primary importance. She says, “Self-testing kits for HIV should be introduced on priority among the young key populations.”
Based on their own lived experience, young people have called for more youth-friendly clinics, and trained health professionals who engage in non-judgemental attitudes and positive conversations. “Participating in the conference allowed me to network with other young advocates from different civil society organisations, helping me to understand how I can improve the quality of services delivered to adolescents and young people living with HIV in the state of Goa,” emphasises Applesta.
Funding is urgently and necessarily needed to support smaller youth-led and youth-focused organisations so as to sustain services directed at young key populations and other PLHIV. The government and other key stakeholders must take the initiative here to make opportunities available to transform the lives of these young people and tap their potential. Applesta says most emphatically, “Put young people at the forefront. Youth are the future. They need to be meaningfully involved in policy-making and the development of different initiatives that meet their needs. The youth need to be given a platform at all levels to voice out their concerns.”
In terms of helping key populations suffering from HIV, the forum gave an opportunity to young advocates from the Asia-Pacific region to discuss the issues faced by young key populations. An outcome of the discussions was 9 key recommendations to engage young people and other multi-stakeholders to end AIDS by 2030. The key recommendations are as follows:
Strengthen the leadership and meaningful engagement of young people, including young key populations and young people in all their diversity within the HIV response
Increase awareness about existing HIV and SRHR (Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights) programmes for young key populations
Engage and collaborate with stakeholders (including governments, private sectors, communities and media) in advocacy campaigns
Ensure equitable and convenient access to HIV services, including for youth in rural areas and modernise HIV services
Tackle harmful stigma and discrimination in household, education and healthcare settings through funding and partnering with efforts led by young key populations that address deeply rooted traditional beliefs and practices
Review and reform laws and policies that affect young key populations and ensure they are aligned with international human rights norms and recommendations
Ensure the availability and accessibility of quality, youth-friendly and non-discriminatory programmes and services that ensure the mental well-being of young key populations
Invest in organisational strengthening and sustainability of youth-led organisations in different capacities
Empower youth-led organisations and create a more conducive, flexible and simpler process to access possibilities for external and domestic funding.
Encounters with society and PLHIV has allowed for the appreciation that stigma and discrimination are a result of a lack of awareness and this in turn is a massive hurdle in eliminating the HIV epidemic. Applesta says passionately, “Overall, the attitude that society portrays towards PLHIV escalates the mental health concerns faced by them. A little push/effort from our fellow community members to self-educate and alter their thinking and behaviour will tremendously ease the pain endured by individuals who are living with a chronic yet manageable illness. Empathy and acceptance are what they truly desire and rightfully deserve.”