Bring back our girls from HIV & AIDS

A young woman in South Africa is four times more likely to be HIV positive than her male counterpart – our young women and girls are disappearing to HIV in huge numbers. Globally, girls between 15 and 19 account for two out of three new HIV infections but in sub-Saharan Africa, the figure is nearly eight out of ten. According to UNAIDS and UNICEF, more than 800 girls in this age group are infected with HIV every week in South Africa [1]. Women and girls are also much more likely to be caring for those infected and affected by HIV [2], limiting their education, work and life opportunities.

Harmful attitudes, gender inequality and social norms create HIV risk factors for young women such as early sexual debut and early and unwanted pregnancy. In a LoveLife study in 2005, 15.5% of 15 to 19-year-olds reported having been pregnant and 66% said the pregnancies were unwanted [3].

Poverty and the heavy burden of domestic care on women and girls mean that girls are more likely to engage in transactional sex (sex in exchange for money, goods or favours) and inter-generational sex (sex with older men), both of which are well-documented HIV risk factors. Girls in families affected by AIDS are even more likely to engage in sex in exchange for money, school fees, transport or shelter. [4]

Sexual violence is one of the biggest drivers of HIV. Around 70% of reported cases at sexual violence centres are under 18 and the vast majority are female. There are very few treatment, care and support services tailored to the specific needs of young women and girls. Care and treatment for survivors of sexual violence can prevent HIV infection and reduce the impact of trauma (which, unless addressed, can lead to mental health problems and risky behaviour in the future) but negative attitudes of health and justice workers towards survivors of rape reduces  young women’s access to these vital services.

Limited survivor services tailored to the needs of young women and girls, make it doubly difficult for girls to access post-exposure prophylaxis (antiretroviral treatment given to survivors after being raped to prevent them contracting HIV), support, counselling and, ultimately, justice in the form of court appearances and convictions for perpetrators.

It is critical to reduce economic vulnerability by encouraging girls to stay in school, gain qualifications and access employment. Funding for community programmes focusing on reducing gender based violence and cash transfer programmes that provide girls with economic empowerment and autonomy is essential.

We call for ZERO for women and girls in the National Strategic Plan (2017 – 2021). We can bring back our girls from high rates of HIV infection if we come together and work towards eliminating gender inequality.

[1] Lake A and Sidibé M (2015), Ending the HIV/Aids epidemic requires a focus on adolescents.
[2] Akintola, O. (2009) Unpaid HIV/AIDS Care in Southern Africa: Forms, Context, and Implications.
[3] Pettifor et al (2005) Young people’s sexual health in South Africa.
[4] Cluver L. (2011), Children of the AIDS pandemic