Ask an adolescent girl about her dreams for the future and hopefully you will hear bold ambitions: dreams of becoming a doctor, lawyer, scientist, or a teacher. You might learn of dreams to travel the world or dreams to one day get married and start a family. You will never hear a girl dream of becoming infected with HIV.
But this week alone, more than 7,000 adolescent girls and young women -- future doctors, lawyers, teachers, travelers and mothers -- will become infected with the virus. HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death among adolescent girls and young women age 15-24 in sub-Saharan Africa. Young women and girls in the region are twice as likely to be living with HIV as boys and men the same age, and account for one in four new infections in the region.
These are tragic and troubling statistics that stand in contrast to the considerable progress the global community has made to control the epidemic. New HIV infections across all populations have dropped by nearly 20 percent since 2010 and more people than ever are receiving life-saving antiretroviral treatment and living healthy and productive lives.
Despite success in other areas, like prevention of mother-to-child HIV transmission, HIV prevention efforts to date have not successfully addressed the many challenges that make young women and adolescent girls particularly vulnerable to infection. Cultural norms and economic disadvantage prevent many girls from accessing the education and health services they need to thrive. Another key vulnerability is gender-based violence: according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Violence Against Children Surveys, in some countries one in three adolescent girls reports some kind of sexual violence in childhood. Millions of girls around the world also face child marriage, making them vulnerable to violence, and likely impacting their ability to pursue their education. These challenges increase a girl's risk for HIV, unintended pregnancy, gender-based violence, and exploitation.
If young women and adolescent girls are fully empowered and had the means to protect themselves -- to live determined, resilient, empowered , AIDS-free, mentored, and safe lives -- the HIV/AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa might look very different. We need to deliver on this vision.
That is why the United States is proud to launch a new partnership, through the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the Nike Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which will -- for the first time -- scale-up a core package of evidence-based interventions to address the many interlocking challenges that face adolescent girls and young women in the hardest hit countries in Eastern and Southern Africa.
In practice, this will mean offering gender-based violence prevention and care for survivors to restore safety and foster resilience; increasing condom use and availability to empower young women to prevent infection; mapping sexual networks to decrease risk in sexual partners; and providing educational and economic opportunities to girls to help safeguard their future.
When implemented individually, these interventions and others have successfully addressed risk behaviors, HIV transmission, and gender-based violence. When implemented together -- as part of a package -- they have the potential to be even more impactful and help girls stay healthy, safe and resilient.
No girl anywhere dreams of living with HIV. It's time we come together to prevent HIV and accelerate our efforts to achieve an AIDS-free generation -- and enable girls everywhere to live their dreams.
About the Author: Ambassador Deborah L. Birx, M.D. serves as U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator.
Editor's Note: This entry also appears on the Huffington Post.