Stemming the HIV tide among Africa’s girls and women

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Over four thousand new HIV infections are recorded among girls and young women in Sub-Saharan Africa every week. However, an expert believes that access to information about the virus can turn these numbers around.

Patricia Machawira, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) ‘s Regional Advisor on Education and Well-being in Eastern and Southern Africa, said services and accurate information could help young girls and women make empowered choices.

She was one of the speakers at the 24th International AIDS Conference in Montreal, Canada. The discussion fell under the theme: Achieving an Aids-free future: African leaders championing Sex Education and Challenging Misinformation. 

High rate of HIV infection among girls

“Every week, 4 200 girls and young women aged between 15-24 years acquire HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa. These infections could be prevented if young people know how HIV is transmitted alongside the services. They need to make safe and empowered choices,” said Machawira.

She further noted how COVID-19 had exacerbated the challenges faced by girls and young women. The shutting down of clinics, keeping girls out of school, and the rise of economic hardships make them more vulnerable to HIV infection. The prevalence of gender-based violence (GBV) and child marriage add to the difficulties faced in the fight against HIV.  

Rates’ unacceptably high.’

“Cases of child marriage and GBV also remain unacceptably high as almost half of boys and girls in Eastern, and Southern Africa (ESA) agree that a husband is justified in beating his wife. Against this background, the ESA ministerial commitment was renewed in December 2021. It continues to enhance the health and education of young people in the region who are still experiencing challenges regarding their sexual and reproductive health and rights,” said Machawira.

Machawira further indicated that growing up without adequate information and skills about HIV disadvantages young people.

“Every child will one day have a life-changing decision to make about their well-being, relationships, families and life goals. Yet, many young people are growing up without the basic skills to make these decisions carefully,” stated Machawira.

Urgent U-turn needed

According to Itumeleng Komanyane, the Programmes Lead at Frontline Aids, there is an urgent need for countries to rethink the way they engage young people on issues about sexual education.

Komanyane oversees the adolescent and youth portfolio within the global partnership promoting HIV/AIDS issues.

“We need to reflect on the process of how we are doing differently. And, we need to consider whether we are even over-professionalising the youth movements. Since they are meant to be very organic in how they engage other young people on issues of championing sexuality education,” said Komanyane.

She asked an important question: “Are we perhaps bogging them down with the request for indicators and reports that are neat and well-written, instead of just giving them space to be able to be young people and reflect on the needs that they have?”

‘Schools remain the sites of rapes’

Komanyane further stated that it is concerning that schools, which are supposed to be a haven for young people, double up as sites of rape and violence.

“When we are asked how we are doing with championing sexuality education, we can show you the evidence, but this doesn’t touch on how schools remain sites of violence. Teachers are sometimes even the perpetrators of rape. Yet, we entrust them to deliver sex education. The young people we spoke to during regional consultation in June reiterated this,” said Komanyane. 

Putting HIV education first

SA’s Coceka Nogoduka, Chief Director of Care and Support in Schools within the National Department of Education, also spoke during the penultimate day of the conference. She said that countries need to invest more in addressing societal drivers of the virus. 

“Investments are still required since the focus is on HIV prevention around the bio-medical interventions. We must invest in social and societal drivers of HIV as championing sex education provides that opportunity. It also provides an opportunity for the education sector to lead in the prevention,” said Nogoduka. – Health-e News


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