GENEVA, Switzerland – Today, November 25, marks the beginning of the 16 days of activism campaign against gender-based violence and I am proud to add my voice to all those calling for an end to rape, sexual assault and all forms of violence and abuse against women and girls.
The campaign runs until December 10, which is Human Rights Day. HIV is of course much more than a health issue—it continues to be inextricably linked to the fight against human rights violations, and the struggle for gender equality and women’s and girls’ rights.
Every week, 6000 young women and adolescent girls become infected with HIV globally. In sub-Saharan Africa, four in five new HIV infections among adolescents aged 15—19 years old are among girls. Young women aged 15—24 years old are twice as likely to be living with HIV than men of the same age. In Eswatini, a recent study showed that adolescent girls and young women who experienced gender-based violence were 1.6 times more likely to acquire HIV than those who did not.
These figures are shameful. They make me angry. Gender-based violence is fueling the HIV epidemic among young women and girls and patriarchal norms and ingrained inequalities throughout our societies are enabling this violence.
We need to break this vicious cycle of violence, abuse and inequality.
Perpetrators of rape and sexual assault need to be brought to justice—there can be no impunity. Survivors must be heard, and justice must be done.
Women and girls need power and agency to seize their rights to equal access health, education and employment.
They are demanding integrated contraception and HIV and sexually transmitted infection testing, prevention and care options. They need access to comprehensive sexuality education to protect themselves from unintended pregnancy, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. We know that keeping girls in school improves their life chances and reduces their exposure to gender-based violence and HIV infection. Rolling out universal secondary education is a key priority and it is achievable, if girls’ lives are prioritized by governments.
Today, I met Juliana Atieno in Kiambiu informal settlement, a surburb of Nairobi. Juliana is a 29- year-old woman living with HIV and a survivor of gender-based violence. She is also the mother of two beautiful boys, both HIV negative thanks to Juliana having access to treatment.
Juliana volunteers in her local health facility as a mentor mother, providing advice and support to pregnant young women and adolescents newly diagnosed with HIV. She is a passionate advocate for the survivors of gender-based violence and works to ensure that they receive the support and care they deserve.
Women like Juliana are the backbone of care support in their families and communities, providing unpaid work in caring for children, the sick, the elderly and the disabled. Grassroots women’s leadership has been vital in the response to HIV and we must ensure that this huge movement of community-level activists is supported with the resources and space to continue its life-saving work.
Meeting Juliana was inspiring! My energy to fight on was renewed. Tomorrow, I launch a new UNAIDS report in Nairobi called Power to the People. The report focuses on the critical role of communities. It’s very clear that when women like Juliana have power and agency, positive change flows to their families and communities.
As UNAIDS Executive Director and as a feminist, I commit to be a fierce advocate for an end to gender-based violence, abuse and discrimination. It is critical to ending the HIV epidemic.
The author is the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) Executive Director