“We need to let them speak for themselves, not adults speaking for them”

September 24, 2015

Jacqueline from Uganda, Nontlantla from South Africa and Annah from Zimbabwe. Three women, three professionals, three activists, fighting for the rights, health and wellbeing of young women. We asked them how come that young women their countries are particular vulnerable for HIV. And what needs to happen in order to bring the most significant change in the support of young women.

Why are young women in your countries particular vulnerable for HIV?

Unequal position of women
Nontlantla starts by saying that unequal power dynamics are a big challenge in South Africa. “As women we are expected to show support to our partners by allowing them to take decisions on our behalf, also when it concerns sex, and even when the decision is wrong. If you don’t conform to this you are seen as being disrespectful”, she says. “Moreover, in my country age disparate sex is common, meaning that young women will not be able to talk about safe sex.” 

Annah: “I agree with you. I see that most young women find it hard to negotiate for condom use in relationships because the men provide financial assistance. Recently at a young women's dialogue several girls mentioned they were selling sex. They were not happy about it but that was how they were paying the bills. One girl said that if a client would pay more money to have unprotected sex she would agree because she needed the money. This clearly shows how as young women we lose autonomy over our bodies and how unable we are to negotiate because of financial needs.” 

“Young women continuously face frustrations because of poverty, inadequate access to needed health services, inability to defend their choices and repeated exposure to infections. I hear their voices echo with anguish from the discrimination they face from their family, guardians, potential employers and the general public”, Jacqueline says.

Annah confirms. “Stigma and discrimination are an important issue”. “Sadly we have had two young women pass away. They did not adhere to their medication because they were unable to disclose to their partners out of fear of rejection.”

Just make sure his food is ready
“Other issues that leave young women vulnerable for HIV are culture and religion”, Annah continues. “Young girls are forced or coerced into marriages with no questions allowed about the medical history of the partner.“

Nontlantla adds: “Even when a woman is educated, when she gets married, her new family would give her advice that puts the man on a pedestal and say things like ‘When a men comes home late, don’t ask where he comes from, just make sure that his food is ready’.”

What needs to happen in order to bring the most significant change in the support of young women?

Involve young women
“Uganda is acclaimed as a champion against the HIV epidemic for over 30 years with tremendous strides in curbing the spread of the epidemic. Current statistics however depict a drastic rise and disparity in HIV prevalence between young men and young women: 1.3%  against 3.9% respectively”, Jacqueline explains. “With that said, what needs to be done in Uganda to bring change is to meaningfully involve young women in the development, implementation and evaluation of programmes that benefit them. Young women need to be given space in terms of leadership to make their voices matter as young women. We need to let them speak for themselves, not adults speaking for them.”

Challenge cultural norms and involve schools
“Furthermore, in order to bring change in support of young women, we need to challenge cultural norms and stereotypes that perpetuate the spread of HIV”, adds Nontlantla. “We need to educate the communities on the harmful cultural norms without ridiculing who they are.” 

Annah agrees: “In order to bring significant change I believe we need to strengthen support systems for young women.” 

Nontlantla emphasizes the important role of education: “Crucial is the introduction of behavior change programmes at primary school. And young girls should understand the biology of why they are more susceptible to HIV and how they can prolong their lives when they are infected. This should be included in the curriculum.”

Support is a continuous process
“Support needs to be continual, I noticed with the young women’s dialogues we have organised”, Annah says. “Important is that we need to move away from the notion of thinking that money will solve everything. For instance after the dialogues we established a social media group as well as a support group. In both groups we talk about the social pressure affecting us and we discuss how we can help to overcome our challenges. In our social media group a girl reached out to us. She was a student and felt that there was no point of furthering her education if she was going to die. We encouraged her by saying that everyone has down moments as well but that you have to hold on, and get something that keeps you going, like a study, to achieve your goal.”

"Young women are so diverse and the issues that affect them are different, one size does not fit all. We need to deeply asses one's situation and address the challenges", Annah concludes.

Nontlantla Mkwanazi works for LoveLife in South Africa and is trainer in STOP AIDS NOW!’s Quality in HIV prevention programme for youth

Jacquelyne Alesi is the Executive Director Uganda Network of Young People Living with HIV (UNYPA) and she part three projects: Access Services and Knowledge project (ASK), the Link Up programme in Uganda and The Strengthening coordination of support for YPLHIV In Uganda Project.

Annah Songo is Annah Sango is a Programs officer at International Community of Women living with HIV-Zimbabwe and a Life Reporter for STOP AIDS NOW! and part of The Strengthening coordination of support for YPLHIV In Zimbabwe and Uganda Project.