The Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV & AIDS (UNAIDS), Winnie Byanyima, has emphasized the importance of keeping girls in school as a vital strategy to protect them from HIV. Speaking after the biennial International Conference on AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections in Africa (ICASA) in Harare, Zimbabwe, Byanyima highlighted the role of education in safeguarding girls against HIV and sexual violence.
“School is the space where a girl is protected up to the time she is an adult. We have to work on public policies to equalize for girls and women. School is the best protection from HIV and sexual violence. Target sexual violence, keep the girls in school,” Byanyima stated.
UNAIDS supports this perspective, citing evidence that keeping young people, especially girls, in school significantly reduces their vulnerability to HIV. Education’s protective effect against HIV becomes even more pronounced when young people stay in school through the secondary level. Byanyima stressed that each additional year of education empowers girls, enabling them to make informed decisions about their sexual lives and increasing their income-earning potential.
Addressing the ICASA conference, Byanyima highlighted the collective commitment of around 5,000 participants to continue the struggle to end AIDS. She emphasized the power of the movement, with people living with HIV at the forefront as activists, joined by health workers, scientists, philanthropists, and governments.
ICASA is being held in Zimbabwe, recognized as one of the countries making rapid progress in the global fight against AIDS. A June 2023 UNAIDS report identified Botswana, Eswatini, Rwanda, the United Republic of Tanzania, and Zimbabwe as having achieved the “95-95-95” targets. These targets signify that 95% of people living with HIV know their status, 95% of those aware are on antiretroviral treatment, and 95% of those on treatment are virally suppressed.
In Uganda, where around 1.4 million people live with HIV, with 860,000 being women and 80,000 children, the focus on education as a tool for HIV prevention remains a critical component of the broader strategy to end the AIDS epidemic.