In September 2015, Heads of State came together to agree on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which their governments will collectively strive towards over the next 15 years. Within the overarching goal on health issues, Sustainable Development Goal 3, governments have agreed to work to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030.
This is indeed an ambitious goal, and although a lot has been achieved on the long road towards preventing new HIV infections and in securing access to treatment for people living with HIV, certain groups are still left behind. Young women are disproportionally affected by HIV and are consistently underserved by efforts to prevent HIV. Empowering young women, including ending gender-based violence, promoting healthy gender norms, and changing power structures so that women have more access to education and economic assets, is critical to preventing HIV and ending the AIDS epidemic by 2030.
Currently, adolescent girls and young women make up almost 60% of all new HIV infections among young people.1 In addition, globally, only 3 in every 10 adolescent girls and young women have comprehensive and correct knowledge of HIV.
Young women often find themselves in positions where they cannot negotiate safe sex, are forced into early marriages with older partners, and, due to poverty, are coerced into intergenerational transactional sex. For example, more than 700 million girls worldwide are child brides, who were married before their 18th birthday.3
This vulnerability deepens when young women are living with a disability or if they are part of certain marginalised communities. Young women may also not be aware of their HIV status, as they are often unable to access voluntary counseling and testing, either due to fear of stigma and discrimination or punitive and age-restrictive laws.
In addition, because of limited access to sexual reproductive health and family planning services, many young women experience unintended pregnancies, are tested for HIV without counseling and their test results are unfairly disclosed to parents, partners and the broader community. They may even avoid going to health facilities for fear of being forcibly sterilized, thus increasing their risk of maternal mortality.
To respond to these dire realities facing young women and girls and to address their underlying drivers of vulnerability, the World YWCA ensures that young women and girls receive support in a holistic manner. We call on governments around the world to do the same.
It would be a significant mistake not to invest in initiatives that support young women and girls. If we don’t listen to young women and their concerns, we will not end the AIDS epidemic by 2030. Without young women’s leadership, policies, campaigns and programmes may overlook critical areas in the HIV/AIDS response.
We call on governments worldwide to invest in and ensure that Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE), including information on Sexual and Reproductive Health, HIV/AIDS and family planning, is available to all young women and girls. This will help prevent further HIV infections and ensure that young women and girls living with HIV are aware of and can claim their rights.
We also call on governments to end the harmful practice of Child, Early and Forced Marriage (CEFM). CEFM has a devastating impact on young women and girls’ personal development, health and well-being, and puts them at greater risk of contracting HIV and transmitting it to their children.
Young women already begin on an unequal footing in life, leaving them behind in many aspects of society. To embark on a fast-track approach towards 2030, and to meet UNAIDS’ 90-90-90 target, it remains essential to invest in and commit fully to fulfill young women’s civil, cultural, economic, political, social, sexual and reproductive rights. We therefore call on governments to continue to empower and educate girls and young women, so they can build healthy lives for themselves and contribute to the end of the AIDS epidemic.