Op-ed: Why we’re uniting in support of African girl leaders to beat AIDS and shift power

By UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima, Director General of UNESCO Audrey Azoulay, Executive Director of UNFPA Natalia Kanem and UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore


Originally published on IPSNews.net

Young girls in Seychelles show off their schoolwork on Mangroves. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

The International Day of the Girl Child on 11th October is a call for us to reflect on our responsibilities. Twenty-five years ago, governments adopted the historic Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action.

Seventeen years ago, African governments committed to the Maputo Protocol affirming the rights of women and girls. Adolescent girls are leading change around the world. They are a tremendous engine of progress. They drive economies. They transform communities. Yet many girls born after these agreements were made are still denied their most basic human rights.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the epicentre of the AIDS epidemic, HIV continues to disproportionately impact adolescent girls. Today, five in six newly infected adolescents aged between 15 and 19 in this region are girls.

Over 600 adolescent girls in sub-Saharan Africa are newly infected every day. AIDS is still the second leading cause of death among young women aged 15-24 in the region. Yet the majority of adolescent girls do not have comprehensive knowledge about prevention of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

Now, the COVID-19 crisis threatens to worsen these vulnerabilities. Evidence from past crises – such as the Ebola outbreak in conflict-affected areas of DRC – show that school closures worsen gender inequality since girls are less likely to return to school than boys.

Girls are forced to enter the informal job market or shoulder unpaid care work at home, leading to increased experiences of violence and spikes in adolescent pregnancies and harmful practices like child marriage and female genital mutilation.

As women executive leaders for UNAIDS, UNESCO, UNFPA, UNICEF and UN Women, we are joining forces to confront the injustices faced by adolescent girls in sub-Saharan Africa.

Together we are working to advance a package dubbed “Education Plus”: completion of quality secondary education; universal access to comprehensive sexuality education; access to sexual and reproductive health services and education; freedom from sexual and gender-based violence; and school-to-work transitions, economic security and empowerment.

We are championing removal of discriminatory laws and promoting the voice and engagement of young women and adolescent girls as advocates and leaders.

Africa’s adolescent girls and young women themselves have risen to speak out, together, to demand these rights. Here are just some of the things they have been telling us:

“A safe learning environment for girls must be prioritized as a lot of them fall prey to those who are meant to protect them. Girls must be able to learn in an environment that is safe and healthy,” says Brenda of Cameroon

“COVID-19 has exposed our vulnerabilities and the glaring leadership and developmental gaps that exist in my country. It has revealed the need for young people with a heart for service,” says Wanjuhi of Kenya

“Resources to disseminate information must be put in place and the media must also be involved to combat associated taboos,” says Bibiche of DRC

Learning from adolescent girls and young women has reminded us as leaders that legal, cultural, social and economic obstacles are intertwined and need to be taken on together; that at the heart of transforming girls lives is shifting unequal power dynamics; and that they do not seek to be “rescued” but seek to be supported in their own right to participate.

A South African study has shown that HIV prevalence among girls who had finished high school was about half that among girls who had not (8.6% versus 16.9%). Research shows too that including discussions about gender and power dynamics in comprehensive sexuality education makes it five times more effective in preventing sexually transmitted infections.

It is vital too that young women are supported to develop the necessary skills as they transition into adulthood to secure decently paid employment. With our united collaboration and support, this generation can truly be Generation Equality and Generation Unlimited.

It is Africa’s adolescent girls’ and young women’s own activism and organising that will drive progress. Our role as leaders is to unite behind their energy, bringing together governments, communities, civil society, business, and others.

Together we can ensure vital investments and transformational policy shifts are made so that all of Africa’s girls can enjoy all of their rights to education and empowerment. We do this not “for” Africa’s adolescent girls and young women but with them; this generation of feminist leaders is the fighting chance to beat AIDS, achieve gender equality, and secure the human rights of all girls.