Girls’ Rights Take Center Stage at the 21st International AIDS Conference

The real reason we haven’t beaten this epidemic boils down to one simple fact: We value some lives more than others. We value men more than women. Straight love more than gay love. White skin more than black skin. The rich more than the poor. And adults more than adolescents.

Charlize Theron’s brutally honest words stirred the thousands of people from all over the world who had gathered in Durban, South Africa, last week for the 21st International AIDS Conference. But she was not the only one who made a strong call to action. For the first time, international agencies and donors spoke meaningfully about women’s and girls’ rights and gender equality as essential to ending HIV. Ambassador Deborah Birx, U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, warned, “Progress made in HIV over the last 20 years is at risk because of our lack of engagement with adolescent girls and young women.” Several sessions highlighted the disproportionate burden that girls and young women carry when it comes to HIV, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, and called on leaders to prioritize their health and well-being. Many of us left the conference hopeful that we may finally see some real movement on these issues.

Kicking things off, IWHC organized a high-level symposium on the first full day called Turning the Tide for Adolescent Girls and Young Women: How Realizing Gender Equality and Securing Women’s Human Rights are Essential for Reaching the End of AIDS. This lively event explored how gender inequalities, power imbalances, violence, and poverty combine to make adolescent girls and young women particularly vulnerable to HIV and what can be done to break the cycle.

The symposium’s panelists—all leading public health experts and advocates—reacted to recent research findings about why girls and young women in South Africa have such high rates of infection. In light of these findings, scientists are heralding biomedical interventions, such as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). While giving these drugs to girls and young women to reduce their chances of acquiring HIV is an important intervention, it is not the only answer. As South African activist Vuyiseka Dubula noted, to effectively prevent HIV, we can’t just hand out medicines. We have to look at the social environment that girls live in—their relationships, whether or not they are in school. These factors affect their ability to keep themselves safe and prevent HIV; they will not be able to take PrEP if they do not have the information and the authority in their relationships and families to do so.

Panelist Mark Dybul, Executive Director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, reinforced the message that HIV is not really a medical issue anymore, it’s a social one. Ambassador Birx spoke about the importance of empowering girls to have control over their health and lives—as the U.S. government-funded DREAMS initiative aims to do. IWHC President Françoise Girard reminded everyone of the importance of comprehensive sexuality education—which includes discussions of gender and power in relationships—for both girls and boys. “We can’t treat our way out of this epidemic, but we can teach it,” she said.

While the impact of HIV on girls and young women got more attention than ever before, government leaders at the conference didn’t follow up with major new financial commitments. This is disconcerting; funding for HIV prevention and treatment by donor countries like the U.S. and the U.K. dropped by more than $1 billion from 2014 to 2015.

Our leaders need to reverse this and boost spending if we are to end AIDS. All the positive rhetoric about empowering girls and young women needs to be backed up by real investment. As the South African activist Glenda Muzenda, who organized a women’s networking zone at the conference, said, “There is a lot of talk, but talk is cheap—especially when we’re talking about the lives of young women.”


Photo: International AIDS Society

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