In many parts of Africa, there are women who have no way of negotiating the choice, or use, of contraceptives with a partner. There are women in relationships who have no option of refusing sex, nor the power to require use of a condom. While HIV infections among the general population of eastern and southern Africa have been plummeting, it has resurfaced and started to grow among adolescent girls and young women.
It is clear that sufficient effort has been placed in effective strategies to reduce the raging HIV epidemic of a decade ago but not enough effort has been placed in combatting the problematic attitudes which deny women control over their own bodies.
The heavy burden of patriarchy is the biggest driver of this epidemic. Oppression of women and appropriation of their sexual reproduction processes by men has meant that as we press forward with efforts to end HIV as an epidemic, adolescent girls and young women in their reproductive age have been left way behind.
As a continent, Africa has come a long way, with remarkable economic growth and remarkable progress against diseases. We however still have a long way in ensuring that adolescent girls and young women are part of this progress.
The numbers are stark. There are now about 380,000 new HIV infections among adolescent girls and young women a year. That means more than 7,000 young women and girls are getting infected with HIV every week. Southern Africa, where I come from, is the epicenter of this epidemic.
We must do more for our young women and girls. We are not going to win this new battle with old approaches and attitudes. We have to be innovative. First, we have to invest vigorously in education for girls. Evidence shows that keeping girls in school not only raises a girl’s standard of living and empowers her to be more independent, it also improves prevention from getting HIV. A study conducted in Botswana last year showed that every additional year of schooling among young people was associated with an eight percent reduction in the risk of HIV infection.
Education also helps our girls confront patriarchy and related vices, which continue to impact negatively on young girls and women. As a woman who grew up in southern Africa, as a mother of an adolescent girl and a young woman, and as a First Lady, I am excited to work with the Global Fund partnership, which is working hard to end this epidemic among adolescent girls and young women.
The Global Fund is investing strongly in improving the health of women and girls, by advancing gender equality and supporting programs that can build resilience and independence among young women and girls. The Global Fund’s plan to contribute to keeping adolescent girls and young women in school and HIV-free is encouraging. The approach has the potential to create a critical mass of healthy, educated and financially independent women who get married later and have children, if they want to, and when they want to.
To achieve this goal, among others, the Global Fund is holding a replenishment conference on September 16-17, in Montreal, Canada. To be hosted by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the meeting will seek to raise US$13 billion for the Global Fund’s next three-year cycle of funding. In addition to saving millions of lives and averting hundreds of millions of new infections, that investment will lay the groundwork for potential economic gains of up to US$290 billion in the years ahead.
With sufficient domestic and international investments in health and other social programs that affect women’s health, we can move ahead in laying a foundation for transformation of the lives of Africa’s women and girls.
As an active member of the Organisation of African First Ladies Against HIV/AIDS, I hope to rally women and men in my country and in the region, around standing up for young women and girls. I invite other women and men in Africa to take up this challenge with us.
Our countries will benefit more when we can establish strong programmes for women and girls. Educated and empowered women will raise children who have the power to seize opportunities, prevent diseases and live successfully.
• Monica Geingos is an entrepreneur, lawyer, and First Lady of the Republic of Namibia since 2015. This article was published in the Huffington Post