On July 18, 2022, the leaders of 11 sub-Saharan African countries officially announced the launch of the Education Plus initiative, marking a significant stride forward for girls’ education and the empowerment of women. At a recent summit meeting of the Africa Union in Zambia, these leaders expressed and guaranteed their support. Ultimately, the initiative empowers girls in Africa by promoting education for women in hopes that this increased access to education will mitigate HIV/AIDS in the region.
HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa
Unfortunately, the stigma around HIV in Africa creates social barriers that impede an infected person’s access to treatment. Historically vulnerable populations, which typically include those who live in countries where HIV is a major epidemic, consistently struggle to access treatment. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), The HIV epidemic most affects the WHO Africa Region.
About 25.5 million people in sub-Saharan Africa have HIV infections, according to SOS Children’s Villages. However, populations in Africa face structural barriers “that increase their vulnerability to HIV and impede their access to prevention, testing and treatment” resources, according to the WHO. This includes “laws that criminalize their behavior, stigma, discrimination and violence.”
The Impact of COVID-19 on Girls in Africa
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced almost 20 million girls out of school in low and middle-income nations. In particular, sub-Saharan Africa noted a high rate of out-of-school female students, even before the onset of the pandemic. Though in some countries, like Ghana, many students re-enrolled in school, girls accounted for the majority of the students who did not re-enroll.
The financial strain of the pandemic meant many families could not afford the costs of education and the gendered norm of females bearing the burden of household chores and caretaking also prevented girls from re-enrolling. The COVID-19 pandemic also increased the risk of HIV/AIDS. The Education Plus initiative will strive to protect the inherent rights of adolescent girls and women to feel safe, maintain good health and have access to education.
Reducing HIV Prevalence
The Education Plus initiative’s primary purpose is to help end Africa’s HIV pandemic. Helping girls stay in secondary school and teaching essential life skills is crucial to achieving this. According to several studies, an adolescent female who completes her secondary education is 50% less likely to contract HIV. Additionally, a combination of this emphasis on education with additional services that empower women can further decrease this risk.
The Education Plus initiative especially advocates for cost-free high school education for both males and females in sub-Saharan Africa by 2025. In addition, the initiative calls for schools to incorporate “comprehensive sexual education” into their curriculums. The initiative calls further for protection from gender-based violence and programs that help students make the transition from school to the work environment, among other priorities.
The Importance of Education for Girls in Africa
Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema stressed the importance of learning, stating that education is “the greatest equalizer” and that “with appropriate education, everyone receives the opportunity to explore their full potential and be able to participate in the development process.” This also means that people have better access to jobs, which will alleviate poverty and reduce HIV risks in vulnerable environments.
At the Africa Union Summit, leaders highlighted the necessity of promoting women’s rights, especially in such a way that would help combat gender-based discrimination and violence. Member states of the Africa Union hope that implementing the Education Plus initiative will help combat HIV/AIDS. According to the World Bank, educated females are more knowledgeable about nutrition and health care, enter marital unions later in life, have healthier children and “are more likely to participate in the formal labor market and earn higher incomes.”
The countries involved in the initiative are Benin, Cameroon, Eswatini, Gabon, Gambia, Lesotho, Malawi, Sierra Leone, South Africa and Uganda. The initiative will run till 2025 and five U.N. agencies lead it: UNAIDS, UNESCO, UNFPA, UNICEF and U.N. Women. Empowering young women and reducing gender equality is a key strategy to reduce the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa.
Specifically, the initiative will encourage government-level decision-makers to prioritize health and education policies that place women at the forefront. Additionally, it will pressure governments to provide universal and free secondary education for their citizens. Completion of secondary education, which is an even more urgent concern in the wake of the COVID pandemic, will ultimately reduce the risk of HIV by as much as half in some countries.
This rights-based initiative is essential because it responds to gender-based abuses and inequalities. It will ensure that adolescent girls and young women have equal access to an education that will benefit them in many ways — reducing the risk of domestic abuse, promoting good health and establishing financial stability, among other advantages. Leaders hope that this will make the promise of gender equality a reality while also addressing a significant epidemic.
– Shiloh Harrill