Feature story

Invest in adolescent girls’ and young women’s rights, education and health to end AIDS in Western and Central Africa

02 November 2021

Leaders from governments, civil society and the United Nations have renewed their commitment to make urgent and strategic investments in adolescent girls’ and young women’s rights, education and health. At  a three-day regional summit on HIV/AIDS held in Dakar, Senegal that concluded with a call to action, the Education Plus initiative was applauded as a timely intervention to address the high number of adolescent girls and young women acquiring HIV in the Western and Central Africa region.

The Education Plus Initiative, a high-level political advocacy drive to accelerate actions and investments to prevent HIV, was launched as a joint commitment of UNAIDS, UNESCO, UNFPA, UNICEF and UN Women at the Generation Equality Forum in July this year. The Education Plus initiative is centred on the empowerment of adolescent girls and young women and the achievement of gender equality in sub-Saharan Africa—with secondary education as the strategic entry point for providing the multi-sectoral plus package.  The initiative calls for free and quality secondary education for all girls and boys in sub-Saharan Africa by 2025; universal access to comprehensive sexuality education; fulfilment of sexual and reproductive health and rights; freedom from gender-based and sexual violence; school-to-work transitions, and economic security and empowerment.  

While the Western and Central Africa region has progressed in girls’ education over the last two decades, the UNICEF 2019 report found that “the region still has the highest gender gaps in education in the world”. One in four adolescent girls aged 15-19 who have ever been married or in union, has experienced emotional, physical, or sexual violence at the hands of a husband or partner.

HIV/AIDS remains a major public health threat in the Western and Central Africa where 4.7 million people are living with HIV—12% of those living with HIV globally—but experiences 22% of all AIDS deaths in the world. Adolescent girls and young women (aged 15-24) in West and Central Africa are twice as likely to acquire HIV than their male peers.  Five in six new HIV infections (82% / 18,237 females) among adolescents 15-19 years are among females. Three-quarters (74%) of new HIV infections in the age group 15-24 in the region are in females (40,432 females / 13,860 males). Every week, approximately 800 adolescent girls and young women in WCA are newly infected with HIV. 

Secondary education offers protection to adolescent girls and young women from HIV—with reductions in HIV incidence among girls who complete secondary education by as much as one-third to one half in some countries.

However, most countries in Western and Central Africa are falling short of meeting the target of allocating 20 percent of government resources to education as required under the African Union’s Dakar Commitment on Education for All. Before the COVID19 pandemic, only Burkina Faso, São Tome and Principe, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo allocated at least 20 percent of their national budgets to education. As a percentage of GDP, education spending varies from 1.1 percent in Central African Republic to 7.7 percent in Sierra Leone.

Before COVID-19 struck, around 34 million secondary school-aged girls in sub-Saharan Africa were being denied a full 12-years of education and an estimated 24% of adolescent girls and young women (15–24 years) in the region were not in education, training or employed, compared to 14.6% of young men.  UNICEF estimates that in 2020 school closures due to COVID-19 impacted around 250 million students in the sub-Saharan Africa region, millions of whom may never return to the classroom-especially girls.

To date, five countries—Benin, Cameroon, Gabon, Lesotho and Sierra Leone—have signed on to champion the initiative with a wide range of commitments that will tackle the urgency of effectively addressing the alarming numbers of adolescent girls and young women acquiring HIV and dying from AIDS-related illnesses, among other threats to their survival, well-being, human rights and freedoms, including sexual and gender-based violence and teenage pregnancy. 

The Education Plus initiative is committed to advancing young women’s leadership as key to ending AIDS as a public health threat and in rebuilding communities and countries during and post pandemic.


“The lessons learned from the success in accelerating gender parity in primary education, need to be implemented for secondary education. Guaranteeing the completion of quality secondary education for every adolescent girl is a must-do. That is why we are excited about the ground-breaking Education Plus Initiative on the empowerment of adolescent girls and young women in sub-Saharan Africa, that I am co-leading with my sister Executive Directors of UNESCO, UNICEF, UNFPA and UN Women.”

Winnie Byanyima UNAIDS Executive Director

“The evidence has shown us that HIV epidemic in West and Central Africa is feminized with women and girls bearing the brunt of new HIV infections and care of people living with HIV. The disproportionately high HIV infection among women and girls is fuelled by the systematic, structural and institutionalized gender inequalities that put women and girls at a disadvantage throughout the life cycle.”

Mrs. Fatima Jabbe-Bio First Lady of The Republic of Sierra Leone

"In The Gambia we have a lot of government schools. Apparently, it’s free. But that just means not paying tuition. Some families are worried about buying three meals a day - and yet they need to worry about buying schoolbooks. To donors investing in secondary education and governments who are supposed to be doing that, I’d say you should be investing specifically in what students need. "

Fatima Gomez Young Woman Leader, Education Plus Initiative, Gambia

“One pathway to women’s empowerment is through Education Plus. If a woman is not educated, she will be unable to take up any of the 30% quota of leadership positions reserved for women in Gabon, who will in turn make decisions and pass laws that empower girls. The country is intensifying efforts to increase access to education, by breaking down barriers and enabling adolescent girls and young women to take advantage of all the measures put in place by the government for access to quality education.”

Prisca Nlend Koho Minister for Social Affairs and Women’s Rights, Gabon

“To reduce girls’ vulnerability to HIV, there is need to leverage health sector funding to catalyze cross-sectoral impact in the education sector, particularly to ensure access to sexual and reproductive health services for adolescent girls and young women.”

Safiatou Thiam Executive Director, Le Conseil National de Lutte contre le Sida (SE/CNLS), Senegal

"Benin is committed to increasing funding for secondary education for girls and training teachers to facilitate a supportive environment."

Kouaro Yves CHABI Minister of Secondary, Technical and Vocational Education, Benin

"We know the solutions; we have the means. Now leaders must be ready to take radical measures. This emergency requires radical measures!"

Manuel Tonnar Director, Directorate of Development Cooperation and humanitarian affairs, Luxembourg

“Adolescent girls who reach upper primary and lower secondary school face multiple barriers. To address them, we need to take a multi-sectoral approach which not only addresses their education, but also their economic, protection, nutrition, menstrual health and hygiene and HIV prevention needs.”

Félicité Tchibindat UNICEF Deputy Regional Director, West and Central Africa Region

HIV regional summit