Executive Director, UNAIDS, Winnie Byanyima
The UNAIDS Executive Director, Winnie Byanyima, has welcomed the Government of Sierra Leone’s decision to join the Education Plus and becoming the first country to officially commit to championing the initiative. Education Plus is a high-profile, high-level political advocacy drive to accelerate actions and investments to prevent HIV centred on the empowerment of adolescent girls and young women and the achievement of gender equality in sub-Saharan Africa.
“Congratulations to the people and government of Sierra Leone on this significant milestone, building on the progress you have made for young people by committing to the Education Plus Initiative for the education and empowerment of every adolescent girl in Sierra Leone,” said Ms Byanyima, adding: “You have made clear that the Covid-19 crisis is not a reason to pull back on investments, the crisis is, instead, a reason to accelerate progress and be bold,” The Education Plus calls for the provision of essential elements of empowerment that every adolescent girl and young woman should be entitled to in their transitions to adulthood.
Ms Byanyima applauded the country’s commitment to the initiative’s goal of provision of free secondary education to adolescent girls and boys and ensuring a national comprehensive sexuality education (CSE): violence-free environments, access to Sexual and Reproductive Health and rights and services, and for adolescent girls and young women to be supported with the skills necessary to successfully transition from school to work.
“I am so energised by this brilliant news from Sierra Leone. To all the grassroots movements, all the young women, and all those in leadership in Sierra Leone who work together to keep gender equality top of the national development agenda and a reality, congratulations,” she said. “We, the UN agencies, stand alongside Sierra Leone in working to achieve this pledge, and we urge development partners to do all they can in solidarity. Africa will flourish when all of Africa’s girls do.”
Over the years, there’s been impressive progress in access to HIV treatment, delivered by African governments with communities and partners, but sub-Saharan Africa remains the epicentre of the AIDS epidemic, and HIV continues to disproportionately impact adolescent girls and young women. Today, five in six adolescents aged between 15 and 19 years newly acquiring HIV in the region are girls. More than 600 adolescent girls in sub-Saharan Africa acquire HIV every day. AIDS-related illnesses are still the second leading cause of death among young women aged 15–24 years in Sub-Saharan Africa.
In Sierra Leone, among adolescents and young women aged 15-24 years, HIV prevalence is thrice (1.5%) as high compared to men and boys of the same age (0.5%). Close to 40 percent of girls are likely to have a child by age 19, with over 70 percent of all SGBV survivors being below 15 years, according to UNICEF data of 2017. The majority of adolescent girls do not have comprehensive knowledge about how to prevent transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. The COVID-19 crisis has worsened this situation with school closures and a peak in sexual and gender-based violence against adolescent girls and young women. The Education Plus Initiative, co-led by five women Heads of UN agencies – UNAIDS, UNICEF, UNESCO, UNFPA and UN Women, is responding to the inequalities that put adolescent girls and young women at greater risk of HIV and will ensure that girls complete secondary school healthy, safe and skilled. The initiative will be launched at the Generation Equality Forum in Paris with young women’s leadership at the centre.