World AIDS Day, on December 1, holds special significance for Africa and South Africa, where HIV/AIDS has had a devastating impact. Africa has carried the largest burden of HIV/AIDS for many years, facing significant challenges in fighting the virus and providing comprehensive care and treatment.
This commemoration serves as a powerful reminder of the ongoing challenges, the progress made, and the continuous efforts to combat the HIV epidemic.
One of the main goals of World AIDS Day is to inspire change and encourage action to reduce new HIV infections, particularly among young people. Education and awareness play a crucial role in achieving this.
To shed light on the progress made in preventing new HIV infections among young people, Independent Media Lifestyle interviewed Dr Veni Naidu, HIV Community Services Lead for BroadReach Health Development.
HIV has various effects on young women in today's society. They are more biologically vulnerable to HIV infection compared to men.
Factors such as engaging in sexual activity with partners whose HIV status is unknown, peer pressure, early sexual debut, and limited negotiation power in relationships make them more susceptible to the virus.
According to UNAIDS, young women in sub-Saharan Africa are twice as likely to contract HIV compared to males. So, how does HIV/AIDS specifically impact young women in today's world?
"The burden placed on young women is disproportionately high, especially in South Africa where HIV prevalence is higher," said Naidu.
She explained that HIV-positive young women often faced stigma and discrimination, which negatively affects their mental health and makes it difficult for them to disclose their status or receive necessary care.
HIV can also disrupt their education, impacting their work and financial prospects, thus perpetuating a cycle of poverty.
Gender-based violence (GBV) plays a significant role in increasing the risk of HIV among young women. Sexual and physical abuse make individuals more vulnerable to HIV infection.
"Young women who experience gender-based violence may also be at a higher risk of HIV infection because they lack the power to demand condom use or negotiate safer sexual practices," said Naidu.
“But more importantly, there is a breakdown in preventive care, such as pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, which exposes young women to HIV infection. Young women may be reluctant to seek care or disclose their HIV status out of fear of more abuse.”
According to Naidu, young women face unique challenges when it comes to accessing HIV prevention and treatment services.
One of the main challenges was a lack of knowledge about available tests, treatment options, and preventative strategies. This lack of information hindered their ability to protect themselves from the virus, she said.
Additionally, the ongoing judgement and stigma make it difficult for young women to get the help they need.
“They might worry about being judged or left out if they ask for help. Also, things like how far away the health centre is, or not having enough money can make it tough for them to get healthcare. It can be hard for them to go to doctor's appointments when they have school or exams, too.”
“Sometimes, healthcare workers don't have a good attitude, and this might stop young women from telling them they have HIV or getting help.
“This is especially tricky for young girls who are pregnant, as they might be scared to talk to their parents or get prenatal care. This can put both the mom and the baby at risk of getting HIV,” Naidu pointed out.
To address these challenges, comprehensive sexual education and empowerment programs have the potential to play a major role.
Providing young women with information about the services available at health centres, can help young girls make informed decisions about their sexual health, she said.
“This includes access to PrEP, condoms, and contraception to prevent the spread of HIV. In cases where there has been recent sexual contact with a partner of unknown HIV status, young women can also receive PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) within 72 hours to prevent transmission.
“We can actively involve young women in committees, youth care clubs and in co-creation workshops related to HIV prevention. Comprehensive sexual education is one way we can empower youth. “
Empowerment is an important element in the fight against HIV/Aids.
"We can actively involve young women in committees, youth care clubs, and co-creation workshops related to HIV prevention.
“Empowered individuals are more likely to actively contribute to the design processes. People that feel empowered are more inclined to participate actively in the design processes.”
In this regard, some healthcare facilities are making strides in creating safe and youth-friendly environments that encourage young women to voice their ideas without fear of judgment.
Through initiatives like PEPFAR/USAID's DREAMS Programme, young women have the opportunity to participate in HIV education, family building, economic strengthening, and self-development seminars.
BroadReach Health Development also holds youth dialogues, providing a platform for young voices to be heard.
Over the past three years, BroadReach Health Development has been actively involved in the DREAMS Programme, making a significant impact in the lives of young women.
"We have given PrEP to more than 80,000 adolescent girls between the ages of 15 and 24 since the program's inception," shared Naidu.
Working alongside colleagues from the Department of Health, they also offer post-violence care services in health facilities and connect clients with GBV partners in the community for ongoing psycho-social assistance.
She said the targeted intervention for adolescents and young women included providing PrEP, a pre-exposure prophylaxis that reduces the risk of HIV transmission.
When young girls visit health facilities, they receive counselling in HIV prevention, and sexual and reproductive health services, including family planning, screening and treatment for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and access to condoms.
Additionally, screening for intimate partner violence is conducted, and referrals to other DREAMS Partners are made for further services and ongoing support.
Some facilities have established Youth Care Clubs, where adolescent boys and young men also receive adolescent and youth-friendly services.
On World AIDS Day, Naidu's message to young girls is one of empowerment and unity. "You are the architects of change.
"Educate yourself, support other young girls, and break the cycle of stigma to build a healthier world for all."