Welcome to #AIDS2016!

This week, 18,000 people will gather in Durban, South Africa for the 2016 International AIDS Conference. It’s the largest conference on any global health or development issue in the world, and this year marks its return to Durban for the first time since 2000. The progress that’s been made in that time is undeniable, and worthy of celebration. In 2000, fewer than 700,000 people received antiretroviral medicines; today, 15 million people have access to this lifesaving treatment, and HIV infections have declined 35 percent.

But it’s far too soon to declare victory on this pandemic; there’s a lot to be done. Many of the obstacles that stood in the way of effective prevention and treatment in 2000 stand there, stubbornly, still in our way today.

There is a seemingly endless list of pressing items to discuss in Durban this week. There are many groups of people marginalized and under-prioritized in our current global response. But the AIDS-free world that everyone attending or following the conference this week feels so passionately about achieving is only possible if we address the issues affecting women and girls around the world. It is only possible if we work together to #EndHIV4Her.

The International AIDS Conference offers the opportunity to re-energise, refocus and recommit.

Here are several reasons why it is imperative that there be a focus on women and girls:

“Girls and women have always been been part of the conversation, but now, here at AIDS 2016, ending HIV for girls and women is at the top of the agenda.” – Dr. Timothy Mastro, FHI 360 @fhi360

“Ending AIDS will only be possible through fulfilling the sexual and reproductive rights of young people. This conference is important through providing a space for the voices of girls and young women to be heard. It creates an avenue for action, where youth can lead the way for change. Now, we need to let them lead.” – Julia Wiklander, Girls’ Globe @GirlsGlobe

“There are going to be a lot of things in conversation at this conference that can really catalyse ideas to make a difference in the lives of women and girls. We have to take risks, we have to engage in communities and we have to be willing to try new things that didn’t seem feasible ten years ago.” – Patrick McCrummen, Johnson & Johnson 

 

Girls’ Globe is present at the 2016 International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa (17-22nd of July). Follow us on social media and by using the hashtag #EndHIV4Her for inspiring blog posts, interviews and updates! 

 

The Power of Knowledge in the Fight against HIV/AIDS

Correct information empowers people to make the best possible choices in all aspects of life. Conversely, incorrect or poorly communicated information can cause a degree of harm that can be worse than knowing nothing in the first place. It is time to stop focusing solely on access to education, and start working on improving the quality of education.

Rightly so, education is often considered the ‘first defense’ to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. When people know how to prevent transmission and why preventing transmission is so important (ie. there is no cure for HIV), the majority of people will, to the best of their abilities, take action to protect themselves and their families. Knowledge gives people the power to prevent HIV transmission in the first place, thereby eliminating the need for medical interventions to mitigate the effects of the virus.

The ‘knowledge is power’ principle has created a focus on simply getting children and youth enrolled in school as a key strategy to combat the spread of HIV.

But is getting children and youth enrolled in school enough? Sadly the answer is no – or at least, not always.

Help LesothoIn many countries where the AIDS pandemic continues to hold fast, the education systems are rarely equipped to properly convey this essential information. Perhaps it’s because so many educators fall victim to AIDS themselves, leaving schools under-staff with qualified teachers. Perhaps it’s because out-dated school systems do not include HIV/AIDS education as part of the curriculum, and many teachers avoid the subject entirely because they fear they will be overwhelmed by the intimacy of the questions and comments.

Or, worst of all, perhaps many teachers still hold traditional views about HIV and insist on perpetuating damaging myths rather than sharing accurate information. In any case, school enrollment does not guarantee that children and youth will learn the correct information about HIV/AIDS.

A recent Help Lesotho life skills camp for adolescent girls revealed how serious the education gap in HIV/AIDS really is. One girl, eager to share her knowledge, confidently spoke up to answer a question about modes of HIV transmission, replying that:

“Contaminated food, air or water can transmit HIV.

Shockingly, none of her fellow campers challenged her response. This girl is currently enrolled in high school. She has been in the Lesotho education system for 10 years, and she is still unaware that HIV is transmitted through bodily fluids, especially during sexual activities. This girl is old enough to be married (under Basotho law), and old enough to become pregnant – so she is certainly old enough to encounter situations that could put her at risk of contracting HIV. The education she has received has left her with no way of preparing for or mitigating these risks.

How can she be expected to be part of the solution to fighting HIV/AIDS when no one has ever given her the relevant education?

In another instance, a group of 60 youth in a Help Lesotho program – all of whom were high school or tertiary graduates – were asked whether a person can get HIV the first time they have sex. Only 75% of respondents said ‘Yes’. In actuality, 25% of Lesotho’s population is HIV positive.

It is widely known that HIV affects adolescent girls at a much higher rate than their male counterparts. In southern Africa, according to UNAIDS, three quarters of all new HIV infections among adolescents aged 10–19 years are among adolescent girls. If access to education is actually an effective deterrent to the spread of HIV, one could assume that whichever gender has higher enrollment in education should be better prepared to avoid HIV transmission.

However, in Lesotho, more girls than boys are enrolled in primary school (up to 70% of some school populations are girls), and yet adolescent girls are infected twice as much as their male peers. There are of course other factors at play – girls are more vulnerable to HIV as a result of gender-based violence and other factors.

One thing is definitely clear: Simply going to school cannot be relied on as the first defense against HIV/AIDS.

Girls’ Globe is present at the 2016 International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa (17-22nd of July). Follow us on social media and by using the hashtag #EndHIV4Her for inspiring blog posts, interviews and updates! To sign up for the daily In Focus Newsletter visit crowd360.org/aids2016/