At the Transforming Education Summit in New York it was announced that 12 African countries* have committed to Education Plus, a bold initiative to prevent HIV infections through free universal, quality secondary education for all girls and boys in Africa, reinforced through comprehensive empowerment programmes.
Speaking on the Leaders Day of the Summit on behalf of the Education Plus movement, the Executive Director of UNAIDS, Winnie Byanyima said, “School saves lives. We are coming together to champion the right for a girl to be in a classroom and in a safe classroom. Keeping girls in school helps ensure their rights and prevents HIV. We know that if a girl completes secondary education, the risk of infection reduces by 50%. That’s why we’ve teamed up with UNESCO, UNFPA, UNICEF and UN Women, with governments and with civil society, to champion the education and empowerment of adolescent girls in Africa to stop new HIV infections.”
Through Education Plus, champion countries across Africa are bringing sectors together to fight inequalities by ensuring access to and completion of secondary school, protecting girls and young women from HIV infection, sexual violence, teenage pregnancies and early marriages, and creating opportunities for access to education, health, and jobs.
Sierra Leone, an Education Plus champion, has been reforming its education system since 2018, enrolling an additional one million learners in four years. Speaking at the Summit President Julius Madda Bio said, “We have adopted a radical inclusion policy and have achieved gender parity in school enrollment. Girls can now be educated from primary through to university free of tuition fees, and pregnant girls can once again go to school. Education is not a luxury, it is a right. We must rally the international community behind the global initiatives being launched.”
International partners shared their backing for the initiative. Franz Fayot, Minister for Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Affairs, Luxembourg said, “The risks of acquiring HIV and the challenges in accessing services in sub-Saharan Africa are very real and are compounded by stigma and discrimination, as well as legal and financial barriers. Financing to support education systems to deliver gender-transformative education is urgent. It will save lives and have a hugely positive impact on economies.”
Joyce Ouma, a young leader from the Education Plus hub, shared why young women’s movements are backing the initiative: “Some of us are still denied sexual and reproductive health information and services and sexuality education because of our age and this has a devasting impact on our lives. As young women living with HIV, we face discrimination, stigma and violence perpetrated within school environments and cannot easily seek essential medical care. Transforming education means we face these gloomy statistics head on. I urge leaders to listen and act on our collective concerns for better systems.”
UNAIDS latest report, In Danger, released in July this year showed that in sub-Saharan Africa 4 900 young women and girls (15-24 years old) acquired HIV every week in 2021. Once a person contracts HIV they require life-long treatment. In 2021 in sub-Saharan Africa, 22 000 adolescent girls and young women died of AIDS-related illnesses.
Fostering investments in access to health, education and jobs gives results. Girls—and their communities and countries—reap multiple social and economic benefits from their completion of secondary school. An extra year of secondary school can increase women’s wages by 15-25%. Educating adolescent girls and young women in Africa could add US$ 316 billion or 10% to GDP in the period to 2025 if each country makes advances in gender parity in schooling.
The United Nations Secretary-General recognized girls’ education and empowerment as crucial for development, “Girls’ education is among the most important steps to deliver peace, security, and sustainable development everywhere,” said Antonio Guterres.
*The 12 African Education Plus champion countries are Benin, Cameroon, Eswatini, Gabon, Gambia, Lesotho, Malawi, Senegal, Sierra-Leone, South Africa, Uganda and Zambia.
The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) leads and inspires the world to achieve its shared vision of zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths. UNAIDS unites the efforts of 11 UN organizations—UNHCR, UNICEF, WFP, UNDP, UNFPA, UNODC, UN Women, ILO, UNESCO, WHO and the World Bank—and works closely with global and national partners towards ending the AIDS epidemic by 2030 as part of the Sustainable Development Goals.