In our region, women and girls continue to be disproportionately affected by HIV, accounting for 63% of the region’s new HIV infections in 2021, the authors write. Credit: Shutterstock
  • Opinion by Anne Githuku-Shongwe, Eva Kiwango (johannesburg)
  • Interpress service
  • Anne Githuku-Shongwe is the Director of the UNAIDS Regional Support Team for Eastern and Southern Africa and Eva Kiwango is the Country Director of UNAIDS South Africa

Sima Bahous, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women has is described it as “digital poverty”: the digital divide that “disproportionately affects women and girls with low literacy or low income, those living in rural or remote areas, migrants, women with disabilities and older women”.

On a continent that contributes only 13% against global internet users, almost 45% fewer women than men have access to the internet in sub-Saharan Africa.

This means that an alarming number of African women and girls are being left out of digitally enhanced opportunities such as employment, mobile money transactions and banking.

From a health perspective, excluding women and girls from digital participation limits their access to life-saving information. It could have dire consequences in a region like eastern and southern Africa where young women and girls bear the brunt of HIV.

In our region, women and girls continue to be disproportionately affected of HIV, accounting for 63% of the region’s new HIV infections in 2021. HIV infections are three times higher among adolescent girls and young women (aged 15 to 24) than among men of the same age.

The factors driving this reality are power, deep inequalities and limited access to information among other factors.

Our report Dangerous inequalities highlights that barriers to sexual reproductive health rights (SRHR), lack of comprehensive comprehensive sexuality education (CSE), and restrictive and contradictory policy frameworks make it difficult, if not impossible, for adolescent girls and young women to access essential SRHR and HIV -preventive and treatment services. .

In addition, socio-cultural norms, stigma, discrimination, perceptions and age of consent prevent young women and girls from accessing HIV testing and SRHR services.

Such barriers deter young women and adolescent girls from turning to health centers for their sexual reproductive needs.

This leaves girls with insufficient knowledge and skills to protect themselves from unsafe and unhealthy sexual practices, leading to HIV infection and sexually transmitted infections, teenage pregnancies, unsafe abortions and sexual violence.

UNFPA “Seeing the Invisible” The report shows that 13% of all young women in developing countries start giving birth while they are still children themselves. In Eastern and Southern Africa, the overall weighted prevalence of pregnancy among teenage girls and young women (10-24 years) is alarmingly high at 25%.

We have completely normalized the abnormal. It is a crisis in itself. But closing the gender gap will give us the opportunity to change the trajectory of inequality for women and girls.

Technology and the digital space should be made more inclusive and accessible in our region and beyond. Virtual medical consultations, SRHR apps and searchable information should be options that our young women and girls should be able to explore in a shame-free, de-stigmatized environment.

We applaud African developers who have created several free apps such as In Her Hands developed by the Southern African Development Community with the support of UNAIDS. Such apps work to provide young women and girls with SRHR information as well as expand HIV prevention.

But all our efforts to make the digital world accessible and inclusive should also be secure. Unlimited access to information and unscrupulous people make women vulnerable to misinformation about the very health problems they are trying to treat.

Furthermore, while the virtual world gives us a space to create boundaries and interact at a seemingly safe level for school, work and socializing, online violence against women is proving to be pervasive.

A United Nations short shares physical threats, sexual harassment, stalking, zoombombing and sex trolling as examples of some of the attacks women face online.

It is therefore important to accelerate the internet literacy of women and girls and equip them with precautionary measures and reactionary measures to ensure their digital safety before online violence permeates the physical world leading to serious challenges such as physical stalking, abduction and trafficking.

Despite the challenges and security concerns, the digital world can be an empowering place when harnessed properly. Safe digital spaces have the potential to disseminate life-saving, evidence-based information on SRHR, HIV prevention, treatment, GBV reporting and related support mechanisms at the touch of a button.

Initiatives addressing SRHR and HIV should be designed with an inclusive digital lens at the fore. Multi-stakeholder collaboration is key, particularly with the private sector, ISPs and data hubs.

At UNAIDS, we have partnered with UNESCO, UNICEF, UNFPA and UN Women to launchEducation Plus‘ Initiative. The initiative accelerates action and investment to prevent HIV by ensuring that adolescent girls and young women in Africa have equal access to high-quality secondary education, along with essential education and health services and support for their economic autonomy and empowerment.

In addition Transforming Education Summit is a key initiative from Our common agenda was launched by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in September 2021. It works to recover pandemic-related learning losses and sow the seeds to transform education in a rapidly changing world.

If used effectively, connectivity and openly available digital teaching and learning resources can contribute to the transformation and democratization of education.

As we work to end AIDS by 2030, access to new prevention technologies such as long-acting PrEP to be rolled out in Botswana, Uganda and Zimbabwe should be expanded across the region. It should be rolled out without differences between rich and poorer countries.

New technologies such as the vaginal ring, an important feminist alternative, need to be supported to increase efficiency and accessibility. In addition, the preventive benefits of antiretroviral therapy must be promoted and understood. Platforms such as social media should be considered powerful and accessible tools to raise awareness of HIV prevention and care in our region.

Technology is a game changer in access to health information, enabling young people to break taboos around sexual health and HIV and feel empowered in their bodies.

We urgently need to level the digital space, use it to end gender inequality and protect our women and girls from the scourge of HIV. There is no price on human life: Stopping AIDS is a promise that can and must be kept.

© Inter Press Service (2023) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service