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women in sub-Saharan AfricaEducation has long been an uphill battle for women in sub-Saharan Africa who disproportionately lack the opportunity to go to school. The U.N.’s Education Plus Initiative aims to empower adolescent girls and young women, particularly in regard to HIV/AIDS prevention, through secondary education. A recent UNAIDS study suggests a correlation between HIV education and completing school, which also leads to a better socioeconomic future.

Education and Disease Among Young Women

Sub-Saharan Africa has become a hot spot of population growth. With more than 60% of the region’s population aged 25 and younger, a new generation of African citizens waits to meet the world on a global scale. But, educational attainment has long presented a hurdle for many sub-Saharan countries.

Relatively few African children receive higher education, with young women being the least likely. According to a recent study from the United Nations, more than 80% of the world’s women (aged 15-24) with HIV/AIDS are located in sub-Saharan Africa. Such health issues create a barrier to pursuing further education. A 2014 Millennium Development Goals Report shows a strong correlation between disease and missed educational opportunities, reporting that more than 33 million children in sub-Saharan Africa are out of school, with 56% being girls.

The Millennium Declaration, a set of goals adopted by world leaders to reignite education and fight disease, says that incorporating education into young women’s lives in sub-Saharan Africa promotes poverty reduction, improves mental health and decreases rates of HIV/AIDS.

AIDS and HIV in Africa

The HIV/AIDS epidemic has ravaged entire countries in sub-Saharan Africa. More than 50 girls die from AIDS-related women’s illnesses every day worldwide and more than 90% of adolescent HIV/AIDS deaths happen in sub-Saharan Africa. According to a 2019 study from UNAIDS, young women in Africa generally lack sufficient sex education. Thus, young women in sub-Saharan Africa face disproportionate exposure to many diseases. This includes two of the most threatening in terms of both education and life expectancy: HIV and AIDS.

HIV/AIDS has become prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa because of arranged child marriages and early pregnancies. A recent study from UNESCO found that nearly 52% of Sudanese girls older than 18 were already married, numbers that are mirrored throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Empowerment at the legal level decreases women’s chances of forced marriages and pregnancies, thus reducing rates of HIV and AIDS.

Michel Sidibé, the executive director of UNAIDS, stated, “When girls can’t uphold their human rights — especially their sexual and reproductive health and rights — efforts to get to zero exclusion, zero discrimination, zero violence and zero stigma are undermined.”

More than 79% of new HIV infections occur among girls aged 10-19, according to a 2019 UNAIDS research study. Young women and girls in sub-Saharan Africa need educational and health support. Fortunately, several organizations are working to empower them.

The Education Plus Initiative

UNICEF, in collaboration with UNAIDS, UNESCO, UNFPA and U.N. Women, has created a new initiative in sub-Saharan Africa called Education Plus. Education Plus focuses on empowering young women and girls and achieving gender equality through secondary education. According to UNAIDS, sexual education has helped empower tens of millions of young women throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

Education Plus aims to revolutionize policies related to women’s sexual education in order to improve their quality of life. Education Plus will begin in 2021 and run through 2025. It plans to create policies that add sexual education to young women’s school lessons, launch tech-based publicity programs to promote women’s rights and expand upon HIV and AIDS prevention, treatment and recovery, among other initiatives.

A UNICEF study revealed just how important education is to empower young women in sub-Saharan Africa. When young girls finish secondary school, they are six times less likely to marry young. The study also found that if a child’s mother can read, the child has a 50% better chance of survival.

Moving Forward

Education Plus is set to run for five years to help women and girls achieve social, educational and economic success. UNICEF, UNAIDS and several other organizations have come together to make supporting young women in Africa a priority.

Moving forward, empowering young women in sub-Saharan Africa, one of the world’s highest poverty areas, requires an array of solutions. Organizations like UNAIDS hope the area can one day flourish as an oasis for young women and girls, who will, in turn, have the educational and social resources to create a more stable Africa.

Mario Perales
Photo: Flickr

Ahmed Helmy regional ambassador UNICEFAhmed Helmy is an Egyptian actor, comedian and TV personality. Best known for his work in films such as “Molasses,” “Zaki Chan” and “Scarecrow,” Helmy is famous throughout Egypt and the Middle East, with more than 15 million followers on Instagram. Furthermore, he has served as a popular judge on Arabs Got Talent and a Samsung ambassador. While he is beloved for his acting skills and charisma, Helmy’s work with UNICEF has also received positive attention from fans. In 2017, the actor was named an ambassador for the Egypt branch of the charity. In June 2021, Ahmed Helmy became the UNICEF regional ambassador for the Middle East and North Africa.

Social Media Campaigns on Childhood Development Issues

As UNICEF’s Egypt ambassador, Helmy participated in a number of social media projects, such as the #FightUnfair campaign. #FightUnfair sought to draw attention to issues impacting Egyptian youth, such as poverty and child labor. Another campaign that Helmy participated in was the #EarlyMomentsMatter movement, which highlighted the importance of early childhood development and establishing healthy parenting habits early in a child’s life. The campaign was widely successful and featured other famous UNICEF ambassadors, such as David Beckham.

Helmy’s work with UNICEF has often involved his own family, as his wife, actress Mona Zaki, is a UNICEF Egypt ambassador herself. Together, the couple made videos discouraging violent forms of disciplinary action toward children. A collaboration between UNICEF, The National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM) and the European Union allowed the campaign to reach more than 80 million people.

Visiting Refugee Children

In addition to social media campaigns, Helmy’s humanitarian work included visits to communities served by UNICEF. For example, in November of 2018, the actor visited Syrian refugee children at Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan. At the camp, UNICEF supports the quality education of more than 19,000 children. Following the visit, Helmy reflected on the experience, saying, “By ensuring every child can receive an education, healthcare, clean water and access to spaces where they feel protected and nurtured, UNICEF is giving vulnerable children hope for a better future, one where they can truly fulfill their potential.”

Helmy’s New Role as Regional Ambassador

In his new role as the UNICEF regional ambassador for the Middle East and North Africa, Ahmed Helmy hopes to continue to help children reach their potential. Specifically, he plans to focus on standing up for children’s rights and promoting awareness of early childhood development issues. Helmy’s work with UNICEF is an example of a celebrity harnessing their social influence for good. In his new role, Helmy has the potential to promote even more positive social change for the many children impacted by UNICEF’s work.

– Nina Lehr
Photo: Wikimedia Commons