Why are young women the face of HIV in SA?

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    JOBURG – The executive director of UNAIDS Winnie Byanyima said that it is unfortunate that the face of HIV in Africa is that of a young women/girl.

    The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids (UNAIDS) calls for bold action to change the stark inequalities facing women, which continue to make them more vulnerable to HIV.

    Aids remains the leading cause of death in women of reproductive age.

    Co-chair of the South African National Aids Council Steve Letsike says South Africa is still at the epicentre of the HIV endemic. Photo: Sarah Koning

    Twenty-five years following the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (the most comprehensive and progressive global policy road map for fulfilling the human rights of women and girls and achieving gender inequality), UNAIDS shared their report detailing the progress in the fight against HIV.

    They also launched their campaign, ‘We’ve got the power: Women, girls and the HIV response’ in Rosebank on 5 March.

    Member of the Uganda Network of Women Living with HIV Martha Clara Nakato said not enough is being done to protect women with HIV, particularly when it comes to disclosure. “We need to invest in communities, economic empowerment, increased education and parents talking to children about self-love and HIV.”

    The executive director of UNAIDS Winnie Byanyima says it is unfortunate that the face of HIV in Africa is that of a young woman/girl. Photo: Sarah Koning

    Co-chair of the South African National Aids Council Steve Letsike described South Africa as being at the epicentre of the HIV endemic. “Sixty per cent of people living with HIV in South Africa are women.”

    Letsike also drew attention to the state of gender-based violence in the country, saying, “We need to stand together and respond. Men who are macho must change.”

    Speakers shared the alarming prevalence of young women who get into unhealthy sexual relationships with older men with money. They emphasised the importance of girls getting a high-school education in order to reduce their likelihood of contracting HIV.

    United Nations resident coordinator for South Africa Nardos Bekele-Thomas, executive director of UNAIDS Winnie Byanyima, member of the Uganda Network of Young People Living with HIV/Aids Martha Clara Nakato and co-chair of the South African National Aids Council Steve Letsike show off the results of the last 25 years following the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. Photo: Sarah Koning

    United Nations resident coordinator for South Africa Nardos Bekele-Thomas said, “We have the tendency to see the glass half-empty instead of half-full,” referring to the progress that has been made over the last 25 years in reducing infection, increasing ARV treatment and reducing mother-to-child transmission.

    “This country has a legal framework that is among the best in the world. We are not lacking in institutions, framework or policy but we lack regarding implementation.

    “We cannot look at HIV in isolation. It is intersectional and multi-dimensional.”

    She added that economic opportunities need to be created for women.

    The executive director of UNAIDS Winnie Byanyima said that it is unfortunate that the face of HIV in Africa is that of a young women/girl. Women between the ages of 15 and 24 are four to five times more vulnerable to HIV infection than boys and men of the same age.

    Martha Clara Nakato is part of the Uganda Network of Young People Living with HIV and believes more should be done to protect women with HIV. Photo: Sarah Koning

    “We have removed inequality in law but failed to tackle social norms and the laws written in our hearts, which are learned through socialisation,” said Byanyima.

    She also emphasised the importance of sexuality education in schools from a primary school level since seven out of 10 women in sub-Saharan Africa do not have a comprehensive knowledge of HIV.

    “If we don’t tell them, how will they make good choices? It’s not about teaching girls to have sex and abortions, but rather about girls knowing their bodies.”

    By: Sarah Koning