Sunday, April 14, 2024
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Africa will flourish – when all of Africa’s girls do. 

As a proud pan-Africanist, it is always inspiring to spend time in Addis Ababa, the home of the African Union and of African unity.  It was wonderful to meet recently with H.E. Sahle-Work Zewde, President of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, an African sister I greatly admire, to discuss how to strengthen girls’ education and empowerment, for health, development and growth.   

Africa can be, as the AU’s vision for the Africa We Want puts it, the global powerhouse of the future, but only if we deliver on gender equality.  We can end AIDS by 2030, overcome the Covid-19 crisis, and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, but only if we deliver on gender equality as an imperative in all of our countries.  

 Investment in the education and empowerment of adolescent girls and young women will be the engine of progress.  And this was highlighted in my meetings with H.E. Moussa Faki, the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, the Deputy Chairperson and the Commissioner for Health Humanitarian Affairs and Social Development and the Commissioner for Education, Science, Technology and Innovation.

Ethiopia rightly prioritizes school completion, and investment in its public education system and I was glad to meet with the Minister of Health and the Minister of Women, Children and Youth who shared making gender equality a reality in Ethiopia.  

Yet, 18 years after Africa came together to sign the Maputo Protocol and affirmed the rights of women and girls, across the continent millions of Africa’s adolescent girls are still shut out of vital services, including secondary education.  

Impressive progress in access to HIV treatment, delivered by governments with communities and partners, has shown that change is possible.  But sub-Saharan Africa remains the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic, and HIV continues to disproportionately impact adolescent girls. Today, five in six adolescents aged between 15 and 19 years newly acquiring HIV in the region are girls. More than 600 adolescent girls in sub-Saharan Africa acquire HIV every day. AIDS-related illnesses are still the second leading cause of death among young women aged 15–24 years in Sub-Saharan Africa. The majority of adolescent girls do not have comprehensive knowledge about how to prevent transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.  

The COVID-19 crisis is making the situation even worse. School closures across Africa are worsening gender inequality; girls are less likely to return to school than boys. Many may never go back to school or have access to skills and economic opportunities, and will be at greater risk of violence, child marriage, early pregnancy, poor health, and poverty. 

This is why, my sisters, the heads of UNESCO, UNFPA, UNICEF and UN Women, and I have together convened Education Plus. It is a high-level policy initiative, underpinned by a powerful rights-based campaign, for the policies and upscaled investments that will ensure free quality secondary schooling for all girls and boys, along with violence-free environments, access to comprehensive sexuality education, the fulfilment of sexual and reproductive health and rights and access to related services, and young women’s economic empowerment through successful school to work transitions.  

The gains from this approach are multiple, proven, and profound – from helping to prevent child marriages and early pregnancies, to reducing HIV infections, to increasing future earnings and strengthening economic growth. Evidences from high prevalence countries in Africa shows that keeping girls in secondary school reduces their risk of HIV infection by up to half. The lack of educational and economic opportunities that results in the diminished participation of women in the labour force is estimated to cost sub-Saharan Africa US$ 60 billion in economic losses every year. And to young women themselves, the benefits — of a full secondary education, social and economic empowerment, access to the sexual and reproductive health information they need, and of the full enjoyment of their human rights — are priceless.  

We know also that coming together can only bring about change on this scale. Grass-roots groups, including young women leaders and activists from diverse networks of young people and feminists, have led the way in pushing for action. Now, an exceptional network of African and global leaders from civil society, business, unions, faith groups and the media are joining forces with adolescent girls and young women to generate an unstoppable momentum for transformation. We invite you all to join in the Education Plus initiative.

Through the leadership of governments, and the support of partners, we can achieve substantive equality for adolescent girls and young women.

When all African girls flourish, so will Africa.   

Winnie Byanyima is the UNAIDS Executive Director, and Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations. The views expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter.

Contributed by Winnie Byanyima 

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