International Day of the Girl encourages us to draw our attention to the inequalities facing young girls across the world. We are called to take a critical look at whether or not girls are given the same opportunities as boys in terms of access to education, financial stability, and sexual empowerment. Here at the Stigma Action Network, we are most concerned with how girls are affected by the HIV epidemic. After examining the data related to this topic, we ultimately found that:
- In sub-Saharan Africa, young women aged 15 to 24 are up to 8 times more likely than young men to be living with HIV.
- Worldwide, young women account for 66% of young people living with HIV.
- Women living with HIV are more likely to experience violence as result of their status, than men living with HIV.
- Prevalence of first forced sex among adolescent girls is as high as 48% in some countries, which further maintains the HIV epidemic.
- Girls’ Lack of Empowerment: According to global statistics, girls are significantly poorer, less educated, and as a result less financially and socially empowered than their male counterparts. This power imbalance reduces young women’s choices as they negotiate their sexual health and relationships, often giving them little choice in determining if and when to have sex, and in cases of consensual sex, whether that sex is safe. Furthermore, poverty prevents underprivileged girls from receiving adequate health care and education, and as such resources are essential in fighting the HIV epidemic, breaches in these areas may lead to HIV infection.
- Biology: The risk of becoming infected during unprotected sex is two to four times greater for women than for men, and for young girls, the risk can be even higher. This biological disparity gives further evidence as to the importance of educating girls about their sexual health and rights, specifically as they relate to HIV.
- Culture: And lastly, cultural mores may encourage men to have many sexual partners. This is particularly problematic surrounding the issue of child marriage, as such customs can facilitate the spread of HIV to girls in high-risk areas. And given that one-third of the world’s girls are married before they reach the age of 18, such practices can have quite widespread and devastating effects.
As you can see, there are a multitude of socio-economic and biological factors that put girls at a higher risk of HIV. But what is the solution to this problem? And how can we curb these inequalities and give girls the power to take control of their sexual health?
Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of UNICEF offers up her thoughts:
“Education is crucial to success against the pandemic.
In fact, UNICEF remains convinced that until an effective remedy is found,
education is one of the most effective tools for curbing HIV/AIDS”
Luckily, the following organizations are contributing to the fight against HIV by educating girls about the importance of and how to protect themselves by engaging in safe sex! Here are a few #StigmaWarriors who are doing great work with girls on HIV education:
Girls Learn International, Inc
Girls Learn International, Inc. takes a unique approach to girls’ education by partnering American schools with schools in foreign countries where girls do not enjoy the same educational opportunities as boys. This organization functions as an after school program that offers service
oriented learning to young girls.
Participants in the US chapters learn of the challenges facing girls in their
partner schools including child marriage, trafficking, poverty, sexual health,
and educational disparities. Money that is raised domestically goes towards
purchasing textbooks, teachers' salaries, meals, and transportation in partner
schools. Girls Learn International, Inc. has 47 partnerships in the following
countries where HIV rates are notably high: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia,
Ghana, India, Kenya, Nepal, Pakistan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Vietnam. Learn more
about this organization and how you can help support the education of girls
across the world.
Maasai Girls Education Fund
On the Top 10 list of countries most affected by HIV/AIDS, Kenya comes in at #4. Girls living in poverty have less control over their sexual health, both because of lack of education and because of sexual abuse. "A large, national survey of secondary school girls in Kenya found that 40 per cent of those reporting sexual activity indicated that their first sexual experience was forced or that they were 'cheated into having sex.'" The Maasai are nomadic pastoralists originating from the lower Nile valley with a strong traditional culture that often prevents females from receiving an adequate education. Only 48% of Maasai girls in Kenya enroll in school, and only 5% of those who enroll reach the secondary school level. Such educational disparity can further facilitate the spread of HIV, as girls who remain uneducated are not only unable to make sexually sound decisions, but are also unable decisions that may secure a promising future. The Maasai Girls Education Fund works to combat this, however, by providing a safe environment where girls can receive a quality education. Donations to the Maasai Girls Education Fund go towards buying uniforms, books, and helping to pay tuition. What makes this organization stand out are their community workshops that attempt to reverse cultural beliefs and norms that discourage young girls from enrolling in and committing to school. And as enrollment in school is the best HIV prevention method available to girls (as noted by the World Bank), this organization’s work can surely make a difference.
Commit 2 Change
Young women are the victims of heavy abuse in India as well, in part because they are viewed as the less desirable of the two genders: over 25,000 of adolescent girls are malnourished and suffer from illness and medical neglect . Commit 2 Change is dedicated to supporting female orphans in India by providing them with secondary education, with a particular emphasis on sexual health and HIV/AIDS prevention. Millions of children across the world have become orphaned after losing their parents to HIV/AIDS. Orphaned children are more likely to become impoverished and less likely to be enrolled in school as a result. A study done by UNICEF reveals that "the irony is that orphans are frequently deprived of quality education, which is the very thing they need to help protect themselves from HIV" . India ranks #3 on the Top 10 countries most affected by HIV/AIDS.
The SAN congratulates the above-mentioned organizations (and others around the world!) who are doing great work to educate girls about safe sex and to prevent the spread of HIV among this particularly vulnerable population. However, The Girls Insights report conducted by the International Center for Research on Women found that "girls said they still lack even the most basic knowledge, autonomy and other assets critical for their health and empowerment." This demonstrates that even more must be done if we are to stop the spread of HIV and related stigma!
We hope that more organizations accept the challenge of incorporating sexual education, including education around HIV, into curriculum for young girls and adolescents. Programs must also be developed in a way that empowers girls to use this education to make sound decisions about their own sexual health. Together, with this sort of integrated approach, we can help girls gain control over their lives and futures, and help make a future without HIV a reality.
(Visit UNICEF for more details.)