This week, we celebrate International Women’s Day. According to the World Health Organization, HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death among women between the ages of 15-44, and nearly 60 percent of the people living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa are women. Throughout the week, PEPFAR will be highlighting its work in addressing gender and the needs of women in this epidemic.
Sexual violence against girls is a global human rights injustice with severe health and social consequences. The data are stark. In 2002, the World Health Organization estimated that 150 million girls had experienced sexual violence sometime in their lives. This tragedy is not unique to one country or continent. Rich and poor nations, urban and rural populations — all are afflicted, with devastating impacts on the lives of survivors and disastrous effects on society.
In addition, sexual violence against girls has dire public health consequences. Girls who are survivors of sexual violence are at increased biological risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. Evidence also suggests sexual violence alters the life path of many girls, leading them down a road of depression, substance abuse and high-risk behavior. In sub-Saharan Africa, girls are two to 4.5 times more likely to become infected with HIV than boys, and women constitute approximately 60 percent of those living with HIV.
The consequences of violence against girls extend far beyond poor health outcomes. Sexual violence is a powerful reason why girls miss out on educational opportunities. This lack of access to education shortchanges a girl’s potential for a better life and damages her prospects of earning a sustainable income, perpetuating the cycle of vulnerability and undermining economic growth.
In response to this global epidemic, PEPFAR has joined a groundbreaking public-private partnership called Together for Girls. Under the leadership of Michele Moloney-Kitts, former Assistant U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, the partnership brings the US Government together with private sector organizations including the Nduna Foundation, BD (Becton, Dickinson and Company), the CDC Foundation and Grupo ABC, and four United Nations agencies, led by UNICEF and UNAIDS. Together for Girls’ efforts focus on three pillars:
- Use data, through national surveys, to inform government leaders, civil society and donors
- Support a plan of action and coordinated programming at the country level with interventions tailored to prevent and respond to sexual violence
- Launch and support communications and public awareness campaigns to draw attention to the problem and motivate changes in societal and gender norms and behaviors
Together for Girls works in support of national governments, civil society and the private sector. It seeks to promote a balance between ending sexual violence through policies and programs that prevent its perpetration, and support for programs to mitigate its consequences — for example, ensuring the perpetrators are held accountable and providing services for victims. The main objectives of PEPFAR’s involvement are to:
- Raise awareness and commitment for action
- Establish strong and well-coordinated systems for prevention and response
- Promote change in social norms, attitudes, behaviors, and practices harmful to children
- Empower communities to take action
- Establish systems for monitoring, evaluation and research
For example, results from a nationwide survey in Swaziland created a grassroots movement to change existing legislation to prevent and respond sexual violence. In Tanzania, the rollout of the national survey has been catalytic, supporting the work of a multi-sectoral task force — composed of government, civil society, and both bilateral and multilateral partners — to launch a data-driven response to sexual violence against girls. The results from the survey are being finalized, and the task force has been building consensus around a national action plan to respond to the concerns raised by these data.
We are optimistic about what we can achieve through Together for Girls. Countries increasingly see firsthand that violence against girls is diminishing the lives of their citizens and limiting the development of their nations. We are encouraged by the growing desire of governments and communities, and the increasingly strong voices of women and girls around the world, to confront the reality of sexual and gender-based violence.
We must get this right. Together we can end sexual violence and build a future where girls are safe, healthy, and valued.