Five United Nations organizations have joined forces to launch a new initiative to ensure that all girls and boys in sub-Saharan Africa have equal access to free secondary education by 2025 and to contribute towards preventing HIV.
Education Plus, launched at the Generation Equality Forum in Paris, France, is an ambitious five-year high-level drive to accelerate action and investments to expand access to secondary education for all young people and to advance adolescent girls’ and young women’s health, education and rights in sub-Saharan Africa.
Before COVID-19 struck, around 34 million secondary school-aged girls in sub-Saharan Africa were being denied a full 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. One in four young people in sub-Saharan Africa aged 15–24 years are illiterate and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that in 2020 school closures due to COVID-19 impacted around 250 million students in the region, millions of whom may never return to the classroom.
“We know that keeping girls in secondary school can reduce their risk of HIV infection by a third or more in places where HIV is common. It reduces their risk of child marriage, teenage pregnancy and gender-based and sexual violence and it can provide girls with the important skills and competencies for their economic empowerment,” said Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS. “Bold and consistent political leadership is needed to ensure all children can complete a full round of secondary education in sub-Saharan Africa.”
The co-founders of Education Plus, UNAIDS, UN Women, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the United Nations Population Fund and UNICEF, are urging countries to use education systems as an entry point to provide a holistic “plus” package of essential elements that adolescent girls and young women need as they become adults. These include comprehensive sexuality education, sexual and reproductive health and rights, including HIV prevention, freedom from gender-based violence and economic empowerment through school-to-work transitions.
Anita Myriam Emma Kouassi, a young activist from Benin, called on leaders to go beyond promises and act to end inequalities and gender discrimination against girls and young women in Africa. “Inequalities and illiteracy leave girls without the ability to take charge of their lives early on and without control over choices around their own bodies and health. We are thus left vulnerable without knowing how to defend ourselves or make our voices heard,” she said. “This is the reason why we cannot do without girls’ education; it is the bedrock and pillar of a strong nation with and for 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.
“Over the next three years, we will work to intensify awareness of sex education through training and the development of dedicated pedagogical material. We will support pregnant girls and young mothers in the case of early pregnancy. We will provide quality sanitary facilities and promote easy access to sanitary towels in schools,” pledged Rose Christiane Ossouka Raponda, the Prime Minister of Gabon. “The new Labour Code, which is currently before Parliament, will enrich our legal framework, particularly with regard to harassment in the workplace. Adolescent girls, young women and women as a whole will be even better protected to promote their social and professional development and their empowerment.”
Education has become an urgent concern amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and its socioeconomic impacts, which have increased girls’ and young women’s exposure to gender-based violence, child marriage and unintended pregnancies, increased the risks of maternal mortality and heightened vulnerabilities to acquiring HIV. Girls in sub-Saharan Africa are especially at risk of never returning to school.
David Moinina Sengeh, the Sierra Leone Minister of Basic and Senior Secondary Education, emphasized that countries must make decisions based on evidence and “Stop at nothing to make sure girls, including pregnant girls, are not left out of education,” adding that secondary education should include sexual and reproductive health in educational curricula. “People say it costs money, but it is going to be more expensive to us when we have high illiteracy in the future,” he argued. “It is already expensive to us when we have maternal mortality, it is already expensive to us when we have major parts of our adult population, women, excluded from the economy.”
Education Plus will advocate for gender-responsive reforms in policies, laws and practices to guarantee the education, health and other social and economic rights of adolescents and young people. This includes changes in parental consent requirements and eliminating user fees for adolescents to access basic HIV and other sexual and reproductive health services, supporting pregnant adolescents and young mothers to complete their education and tackling gender-based violence, menstrual hygiene management and mental health, among others.
“It is important to look at HIV prevention systematically and not underestimate the special role of mental health when it comes to safe sex practices,” said Shudufhadzo Musida, Miss South Africa 2020. “In order to bring about mental health awareness, HIV prevention, economic empowerment and gender equality, we need to empower the minds of adolescent girls and young women now more than ever.”
Education Plus was launched as a joint commitment to the Generation Equality Forum. At the high-level virtual launch, Ms Byanyima was joined by Sierra Leone’s Minister of Basic and Senior Secondary Education, David Moinina Sengeh, the Tunisian diplomat and former African Union Youth Envoy, Aya Chebbi, a representative of the Education Plus Young Women’s leadership hub, Anita Myriam Emma Kouassi, and Miss South Africa 2020, Shudufhadzo Musida.