Five United Nations organizations have joined forces to launch a new initiative to ensure that all girls and boys in sub-Saharan Africa have equal access to free secondary education by 2025 and to contribute towards preventing HIV. Education Plus, launched at the Generation Equality Forum in Paris, France, is an ambitious five-year high-level drive to accelerate action and investments to expand access to secondary education for all young people and to advance adolescent girls’ and young women’s health, education and rights in sub-Saharan Africa.

Before COVID-19 struck, around 34 million secondary school-aged girls in sub-Saharan Africa were being denied a full education and an estimated 24% of adolescent girls and young women (15–24 years) in the region were not in education, training or employed, compared to 14.6% of young men. One in four young people in sub-Saharan Africa aged 15–24 years are illiterate and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that in 2020 school closures due to COVID-19 impacted around 250 million students in the region, millions of whom may never return to the classroom.

“We know that keeping girls in secondary school can reduce their risk of HIV infection by a third or more in places where HIV is common. It reduces their risk of child marriage, teenage pregnancy and gender-based and sexual violence and it can provide girls with the important skills and competencies for their economic empowerment,” said Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS. “Bold and consistent political leadership is needed to ensure all children can complete a full round of secondary education in sub-Saharan Africa.”

The co-founders of Education Plus, UNAIDS, UN Women, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the United Nations Population Fund and UNICEF, are urging countries to use education systems as an entry point to provide a holistic “plus” package of essential elements that adolescent girls and young women need as they become adults. These include comprehensive sexuality education, sexual and reproductive health and rights, including HIV prevention, freedom from gender-based violence and economic empowerment through school-to-work transitions.

Anita Myriam Emma Kouassi, a young activist from Benin, called on leaders to go beyond promises and act to end inequalities and gender discrimination against girls and young women in Africa. “Inequalities and illiteracy leave girls without the ability to take charge of their lives early on and without control over choices around their own bodies and health. We are thus left vulnerable without knowing how to defend ourselves or make our voices heard,” she said. “This is the reason why we cannot do without girls’ education; it is the bedrock and pillar of a strong nation with and for girls.”

Categories: HIV in Schools

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