Every year 390,000 adolescent girls and young women are infected with HIV—more than 1,000 a day. In sub-Saharan Africa, the numbers are even more staggering: nearly three out of four adolescents newly infected with HIV are female, and in some countries young women are up to 14 times more likely to contract HIV than young men.
Many factors increase girls’ vulnerability to HIV, including sexual violence, a lack of access to secondary school, harmful traditional practices, and exclusion from economic opportunities. Ninety-eight million girls around the world are not in school, yet we know that a girl who has a basic education is three times less likely to contract HIV. Girls who experience violence are up to three times more likely to be infected with HIV or other sexually-transmitted infections. The Violence Against Children Survey conducted by Together for Girls in 11 countries found that an average of one in three young women reported their first sexual experience as forced or coerced.
In response to this data, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) launched the Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored, and Safe (DREAMS) program to find girl-centered solutions. In its first year of implementation, DREAMS reached one million adolescent girls and young women with interventions to address the specific factors that increase their risk for HIV infection. The complementary DREAMS Innovation Challenge is supporting creative and community-based approaches to meet local needs. Together, DREAMS is strengthening families; keeping girls in school and safe from sexual violence; avoiding and reducing risk; and providing a bridge to employment for young women.
On World AIDS Day 2017, PEPFAR was able to announce that significant progress has been made for the first time! In the 10 African countries (63 districts) implementing PEPFAR’s pioneering DREAMS public-private partnership, the majority (65 percent) of the highest HIV burden communities or districts achieved a 25-40 percent decline in new HIV diagnoses among young women. Overall, new diagnoses declined in nearly all DREAMS intervention districts.
Plan is one of the lead implementers of DREAMS in Malawi and Zambia. Currently, Plan’s One Community project in Malawi uses groups called Go! Girls Clubs as a platform to mentor adolescent girls and young women and expose them to an array of topics and services around:
- HIV prevention, care, and treatment
- Sexually-transmitted infections
- Gender-based violence (including child marriage)
- Positive gender roles
- Positive parenting skills
- Financial literacy and economic strengthening
The goal of the Go! Girls Club is to increase social assets (such as knowledge, efficacy, and risk reduction skills) and ultimately prevent HIV infections among its members.
These activities are linked to Malawi’s historic amendment to its constitution that fully outlawed child marriage following a year-long campaign by youth groups and NGOs, including Plan International Malawi. The amendment, voted through by the Malawian Parliament in February, removes a legal loophole that had allowed children between 15 and 18 years of age to marry with parental consent. Malawian Parliamentarians voted 131 to 2 in favor of removing this provision.
Memory Banda, 20, one of the young people who has led the campaign, speaks from experience, "When my little sister was just 11, she was forced to marry the man who got her pregnant. At the time, I was young and thought this was normal. But I quickly realized the devastating impact it had on her when she was further abused in marriage. When she came home, I saw the person who had been my little sister wasn't my little sister anymore. Now, together with a team of young campaigners supported by Plan International, we've worked with the government to amend the constitution of our country to help end child marriage – once and for all."
Ending the AIDS epidemic by 2030 is possible, but only if we empower, protect, and support adolescent girls and young women in communities to realize their dreams.