The past three decades have shown remarkable progress in the prevention and treatment of HIV and AIDS, and, for the first time, the promise for a cure appears within our reach. But despite these worthy achievements, one of the most vulnerable populations – adolescent girls – continues to be left out of programming, receiving just two cents of every international aid dollar.
In sub-Saharan Africa, young women age 15 to 24 are eight times more likely to be HIV positive than men. This daunting trajectory is fueled by a cycle of poverty and violence that has left an estimated 600 million girls in developing countries vulnerable to the AIDS epidemic.
In many developing countries, girls are uniquely vulnerable to HIV infection due to challenges related to their age and gender, such as early marriage, early pregnancy, high school dropout rates, and fewer income generating opportunities. When these factors combine, girls may be directly exposed to HIV — particularly as many face sexual violence in these situations — or may lack access to sexual health information and services needed to prevent it.
It’s time we do more than just pay lip service to “girl power” and begin to truly put our money where our mouth is.
Furthermore, girls face stigma when they try to access HIV resources. The HIV/AIDS programs developed for youth often end up dominated by boys, while gender-specific information is largely designed for women. As a result, an astounding 80 percent of girls and young women between 15 and 24 years old do not know enough about HIV and are at risk for infection.
Despite the many odds that are stacked up against girls from the very beginning they are at the heart of the AIDS solution.
In a new report just released by American Jewish World Service efforts to combat these barriers by focusing on girl-centered and girl-led programming have shown the promise of investing in the empowerment of girls as a global model for fighting the AIDS epidemic.
In rural Kenya, the Kisumu Medical and Education Trust has launched “Sisterhood for Change,” combining programming that educates girls about their sexual health and their economic power, with vocational training that has placed 90 percent of graduates in jobs.
In Kibera, one of the largest slums in Kenya, Carolina for Kibera has empowered thousands of girls at the Binti Pamoja Center, providing a girl-centered two-year mentorship program that educates girls to become sexual health advocates in their community.
And in the Nairobi slum of Dandora, Fortress of Hope Africa has encouraged more than 1,000 girls to empower each other through girl-led projects such as the Groundbreakers, an education dance group that raises awareness about sexual health.
As these examples have shown, when we position girls and their sexual health and reproductive rights at the center of a comprehensive prevention effort, we can truly begin to turn the tide on HIV/AIDS globally.
But first we must bridge the gap to reach girls. Currently, less than half of all countries dedicate resources specifically to women and girls in their HIV programming. Investing more in girl-centered and girl-led programming has the potential to dramatically prevent the global spread of HIV/AIDS.
Investments in girls will do more than just save lives – although that alone should be reason enough. The ripple effect of these investments, commonly referred to as the “girl effect,” can rebuild communities and transform countries. When barriers to economic empowerment are eliminated, women who earn an income invest 90 percent of their money – more than double what men invest – back into their communities, on expenses such as healthcare for children and nutritious food for families that will strengthen and empower their community.
It’s time we do more than just pay lip service to “girl power” and begin to truly put our money where our mouth is. When we create safe, girl-led spaces that address the many factors that put girls at risk, we will support a new generation of leaders that will lift communities out of poverty, end violence against women and stop the spread of AIDS.