Young women have health rights too

Opinion by Naledi Katsande, January 15, 2018

The world will not achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (`SDGs) – which include the target of ending AIDS by 2030 – without young women attaining their right to health.

Women often experience the impact of HIV more severely than men, due to a combination of social, economic and biological factors. Young women remain at an unacceptably high risk of HIV infection. Studies by UNAIDS indicate that 3 out of every 5 new HIV infections are amongst young women aged between 15 to 24 years. Despite these alarmingly high figures, young women’s sexual and reproductive health needs and rights are mostly unmet.

Gender inequalities

Gender inequalities play a major role in limiting young women’s access to health care and education. When a young woman drops out of school, the likelihood of early sexual debut and early marriage and subsequent HIV infection increases. Studies indicate that one in three women worldwide will be raped, beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime. Sexual violence is prone to increase the risk of infection as it can damage the vaginal wall through the violent act, allowing infection direct contact with underlying tissue. Coerced sex can also deny women the ability to insist on condom use.

Barriers to Sexuality Information and Services
Young women often face significant discrimination and barriers to access sexual and reproductive information, goods and services. When young women are empowered with sexual and reproductive health information and readily available services, they are able to make informed decisions regarding their sexuality. Choice frees young women from slavery of any type because they are able to say yes or no. Information allows them to make informed choices about their bodies.

Research by young women, for young women
Research suggests that physical and sexual violence puts women at greater risk of HIV, and that young women living with the virus may experience violence as a result of their status.

Adolescents have unique needs with respect to HIV prevention and, thus, interventions should be designed to most effectively reach this population with information and services that will be relevant to them. 

Keeping girls in school
One crucial strategy in the battle against HIV is keeping young girls in school. Keeping girls occupied with school allows them to acquire the education they need in order to make informed decisions regarding their health rights.

How far we have come
Significant strides have been made towards young women’s reproductive health in 2017 including recent research and clinical trials of vaginal rings in African young women designed to slowly release the antiretroviral (ARV) drug to prevent HIV in women.  But we shouldn’t be complacent, we still have a long way to go regarding ending AIDS. Although AIDS related deaths have reduced by 32 per cent and new infections by 16 per cent with the sharpest decreases in Eastern and Southern Africa, 26 per cent of new infections are among young women despite only constituting 10 per cent of the population in Eastern and Southern Africa according to UNAIDS. 

“We must continue to speak up openly about AIDS. No progress will be achieved by being timid, refusing to face unpleasant facts or prejudging our fellow human beings. In the ruthless world of AIDS, there is no us and them…And in that world, silence is death,” said Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary-General.