Feature story

Invest in women and girls’ education and health rights to end AIDS in Africa

11 March 2024

Despite substantial declines in new HIV infections globally, the HIV/AIDS epidemic continues to disproportionately impact adolescent girls and young women in many countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2022, there were 3,100 new weekly infections among adolescent girls and young women aged 15-24 years.  In sub-Saharan Africa, adolescent girls and young women accounted for more than 77% of new infections among people aged 15-24 years in 2022.

That’s why Education Plus Initiative co-hosted with the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg a high-level side event on the margins of the 68th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW68) to bring attention to the cost of inaction, calling for more consistent investment in education, health and economic rights of adolescent girls and young women in Africa. The CSW, which runs from 11- 22 March 2024, is the United Nations largest annual gathering on gender equality and women’s empowerment, with this year’s priority theme, Accelerating the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls by addressing poverty and strengthening institutions and financing with a gender perspective.

Speakers included four ministers from Luxembourg, Benin, Sierra Leone, and Uganda, senior government officials from Cameroon and South Africa, and heads of UN agencies who co-lead Education Plus, ATHENA network. Hannah Dolly Kargbo, a young activist from Freetown, Sierra Leone, and founder of the Girls Advocacy Development Network (GADNET), pre-recorded a video that showed her work with young people to advance rights.

The event, Education Plus investment cases for transformative results: leveraging girls completion of secondary education for gender equality and HIV prevention mobilized government, partners and key stakeholders towards accelerated actions and translate commitments to action for gender equality and HIV prevention in Africa.

The costs of inaction on the rates of HIV in adolescent girls and young women remain significant, not only counted in terms of the harmful impacts on girls’ lives but in how they undermine prospects for poverty eradication and the well-being and resilience of families, communities, societies and national economies.  For instance, the lack of educational and economic opportunities that result in women’s diminished labour force participation is estimated to cost the African region US$60 billion in economic losses every year. And yet Africa could gain US$500 billion per year through multi-sectoral investments in adolescents and youth, especially girls, by capitalizing on demographic windows of opportunity.

Education Plus calls for investment in the education and empowerment of adolescent girls and young women, and 15 champion countries are already committed to using education as a means to reduce high HIV rates.  Investments that guarantee education for all young people, violence-free school environments, provision of stigma-free health services, comprehensive sexuality education, access to sexual reproductive health and rights services and economic autonomy and empowerment are key to ending AIDS as a public health threat by 2030. When adolescent girls and young women complete secondary school, their risk of getting HIV is reduced significantly.


“We must take immediate action to change this situation, get girls back to school and ensure they complete secondary education. This requires commitments made by African member states to address gender inequalities, stigma and discrimination that fuels these infections fulfilled. There is progress in Africa, but it simply isn't fast enough. That's why we have this initiative - Education Plus”

Winnie Byanyima UN Under-Secretary General and UNAIDS Executive Director

“What I find extremely worrying is the surge in extreme conservative policies on sexual and reproductive health and rights. This is across the world but also in sub-Saharan Africa. We must avoid going back in time. We need to empower girls because it's the only way that we will have women empowered.”

Yuriko Backes Minister of Gender Equality and Diversity, Luxembourg

“We can make HIV a disease of the past, but we can't do it without listening to understanding and supporting young girls and women to take the lead. Now is the time to ensure that every girl lives a life free from violence with unhindered access to quality education, to sexual and reproductive health rights and services and with meaningful opportunities to lead a productive life.”

Catherine Russell UN Under-Secretary General and UNICEF Executive Director

"We know that investing in girls' education and health is an important lever. We can't build our country's development by leaving out 53% of our population"

Véronique Tognifodé Minister of Social Affairs and Microfinance, Republic of Benin

“Under the radical inclusion policy, we are bringing pregnant girls back to school, retain girls when they become pregnant. So, education and HIV go a long way! When they are educated and have an awareness of HIV, their well-being, and reproductive and sexual rights, they are more assertive when negotiating safer sex.”

Isata Mahoi Minister of Gender and Children’s Affairs, Sierra Leone

“Adolescent girls and young women's organizations are the least funded. Only less than 5% funding of gender equality goes to women's rights organizations, even less goes to young feminist-led organizations. We need to keep the ones who are most affected, most impacted leading the response. We're not here to ask for leadership but to offer leadership to co-lead alongside you.”

Catherine Nyambura Programs Director, ATHENA Network

"It is now a policy that when constructing a school, you must have sanitary facilities separate for both girls and boys, and girls changing rooms and space. We also have intensified education, communication and advocacy on HIV/AIDS and opened schools to give information on sexual and reproductive health. We are working with girls who have dropped out of school to skill them."

Amongi Betty Ongom Minister for Gender, Labour and Social Development, Uganda

“Girls are unable to live up to their full potential because of barriers, but those barriers are dismantlable. Africa is not poor, but African women and girls are licking a spoon, a spoon they do not even own, so let's shift the discourse so that the resources also available in the countries are prioritized for investing in education, HIV prevention and investing in girls.”

Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda UN Assistant Secretary-General and UN Women Deputy Executive Director for Normative Support, UN System Coordination and Programme Results

Related: At the 68th Commission on Status of Women UNAIDS calls for action to achieve gender equality and end AIDS