How was my time at ICASA 2023? Honestly, let me tell you. I wish this were a vlog so one can see my expressions, the smile on my face, and how bright my eyes look when trying to explain the experience. It was amazing, empowering, exciting, enabling and unique.
It all started with an email from UNICEF towards the end of September 2023. I was nominated to chair a non-abstract session about “Intensifying Youth-led Social Accountability to Accelerate the SRHR and HIV Response.” Can you imagine the excitement I felt when I read that email?
I immediately knew I had to take this opportunity and show my skills to the world. Within five minutes of receiving the email, I sent my acceptance feedback, and I can tell you that I was the happiest girl at that moment.
And the best part was yet to come! A week later, I received a call from Y+ Global to inform me of all the logistics, and I couldn't contain my excitement. At that time, I thought, “You got this girl. It's time to learn, time to network, time to have your voice heard, time to show your skill, girl!”
The time came for us to travel to Zimbabwe for ICASA. I can proudly say I didn’t feel nervous or anxious in any way because the communications and logistics team from Y+ Global and the support I received from UNICEF were top-notch. At every stage of the planning, we were being communicated how logistics would be done, how we would move from one place to the next, whom to contact, and updates on the ICASA program. They wanted to make sure that we got the most out of this conference, so when we arrived in Zimbabwe, no one was left out, which reduced the chances of us getting lost along the way.
So, we arrived in Zimbabwe, and I was ready to learn and network, walking like I knew the place. It was my first time at this conference, and I wanted to take advantage of everything. That is how the first day felt because I wanted to attend the Youth Pre-Conference. But talk about a missed opportunity and speaking too soon! Unfortunately, registration took me the whole day, and this was because the ICASA organisers still needed to get our updated profiles; hence, they still needed to provide me with a conference badge, which meant that access to sessions would be denied. It was not a good experience, but one to learn from, and the lesson for me was that we should always consider registering participants a day before the actual event so you don’t miss out on the conference itself due to paperwork.
ICASA looked like an open market, a place with a variety of knowledge to offer. One just needed to choose what they wanted to learn. I engaged in two panel discussions, chairing one and helping facilitate another. In one of the panel discussions, I spoke about how we can work against anti-gender movements in fighting HIV since this hugely affected the LGBTQ+ community’s health and well-being. From the session, I understood how the increase of new HIV infections is a result of the discrimination key populations face in accessing health services. Coming from a country that is often dubbed a “Christian Nation”, Zambia, I never had the opportunity to speak on this issue to this extent. I believe it's time people critically look into the intersectionality of these issues so we can ensure everyone has access to the services they need, free from stigma and discrimination.
When it came to chairing the youth-led change session, which Y+ Global, the UNITED Movement, and UNICEF organised at the Y+ Global booth in the community village, I birthed a talent and a skill I did not know I had. It was my first time chairing or leading an advocacy session, and I wanted to make sure that it was creative, engaging, and exciting. Together with my team, the sessions ran beautifully, and I am proud of what we accomplished.
The conference had exhibitions from various organisations, such as manufacturing companies, who manufactured commodities needed in the HIV response. Visiting the different booths was educating and opened my mind to understand that the fight against HIV is indeed one that needs everyone's efforts.
I understood from this experience that working for a community-based organisation, I should be open to seeking partnerships at the global level. Our organisation can create a global impact if we partner with all these organisations from various countries.
But you know what the best part was? The networks created at ICASA 2023! I made friends with almost every youth that Y+ Global and UNICEF supported; the best interactions I can highlight were from Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Malawi, South Africa, Latin America, Ivory Coast and Burundi. In my tribe, we say, “Nothing will teach you more than exposure”, and this was precisely what was happening.
In one word, ICASA was EMPOWERING! It was an experience that made me feel like I could conquer the world! I'm so grateful to all the organisations that supported young people like me and believed in us. The least we can do is work towards improving our countries by being a youthful force that can lead.