KAMPALA – Adolescent girls and young women are still disproportionally affected by HIV. An estimated 50 adolescent girls die every day from AIDS-related illnesses. And each day, some 460 adolescent girls become infected with HIV. There is need to provide HIV services and to protect the rights of adolescent girls and young women as we fight HIV pandemic. Rural girls cannot access medication or quality health services. Girls are so vulnerable and these vulnerabilities are fueling HIV/AIDS transmission. Girls are more hit by poverty than boys of their age. The girls needs tend to be more than those of an adolescent boy. In the effort to improve social status girls compromise and engage in cross-generational sex which predisposes them to HIV infections.
Girls and young women experience gender-based violence than boys which drive HIV infection and transmission. Girls are easily raped because of their anatomical nature. They face low negotiation power over sexual practices and protection interventions. Sexual exploitation affects girls more than boys and increases their risk to HIV infection.
Affected by gender inequalities, adolescent girls and young women face discrimination that compounds their vulnerabilities to HIV. Sadly, adolescent girls are largely invisible, undeserved and unrepresented in policies and services. Social norms and practices and the practice of cross-generational sex affects girls. When girls cannot uphold their human rights especially their sexual and reproductive health and rights efforts to get to zero exclusion zero discrimination, zero violence and zero stigma are undermined.
We must break the vicious cycle of gender inequalities, gender-based violence and HIV infection once and for all. Reverse all power imbalances that affects young women. Close the knowledge gap of sexual and reproductive matters. Fight girl’s exploitation due to their financial dependence by creating girls/young women livelihood opportunities. These include girls micro-credit initiatives with life skills. Once girls are empowered financially they cannot be exploited sexually.
Create social marketing and “edutainment” projects for girls in our faster one on one dialogues. Implement girl’s advocacy programs that raise awareness on cross-generational sex.
Lastly, address social and gender norms which affect girls. Girls should enjoy their freedom and rights undeterred and unaffected. Gender norms in many cultures combined with taboos about sexuality have a huge impact on the ability of adolescent’s girls and young women to protect their health and prevent HIV.
The vulnerabilities of marginalized groups of adolescent girls and young women are compounded by multiple forms of discrimination. Most times adolescent girls are unpaid care workers for younger siblings, the ill, the elderly or people living with HIV. The girls are exposed to so much emotional and mental torture that hampers proper decision-making in sexual advances.
Violence against women and girls is both a consequence of and cause HIV. Violence creates a fear in girls to negotiate safer sex, access HIV information, sexual and reproductive health services and disclose HIV status to family and friends. Girls as survivors of violence suffer a range of health consequences including mental health issues like depression and anxiety, less control over sexual decision making and poor sexual and reproductive health outcomes.
Adolescent girls are prime targets of gender-based violence which includes incest, sexual abuse, intimate partner violence, early and forced marriage, rape, female genital mutilation, sexual exploitation and trafficking. Promoting the rights of girls is critical in the fight against HIV infection. Upholding their right to life, health, freedom of expression, right to information and sexual and reproductive rights is key.
Educating and protecting the girl’s rights will eradicate ignorance, violence and HIV infections. Combat all forms of discrimination and stigma which compound the risks of HIV. Allow girls link to and stay engaged in HIV care services. Tailored strategies are needed to support adolescent girls and young women living with HIV. Ensure girls access to HIV prevention services. Knowledge on pre-exposure prophylaxis and condoms is vital. The education of girls plays a critical role. Uneducated girls are twice as likely to acquire HIV than those who have some schooling. An educated girl is well informed confident, empowered to stand against any forms of abuse in all spaces.
Ms. Joyce Nalunga Birimumaaso is a senior advocate and member, leadership Code Tribunal