World AIDS Day on 1 December is the right time to think about the health and lives of adolescent girls. Because, across Africa, HIV strikes particularly hard against adolescent girls and young women.
Adolescence is a time when young people build the foundations for their futures. But for many Zambian girls, and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, adolescence has also been a time in which they face vulnerabilities that can increase their lifetime risk for HIV and AIDS. Girls account for 71 percent of new adolescent HIV infections in sub-Saharan Africa. The virus exploits the vulnerabilities in the lives of many girls and young women – including poverty, lack of mentorship and education, financial dependency and early marriage. Which is why I believe that some of the most effective responses to AIDS are those that help protect girls from HIV by supporting them to lead stronger, safer, healthier and more secure lives overall.
That’s the idea behind the Adolescent Girls Empowerment Program, a bold innovative strategy designed to help girls develop the critical life skills they need to lead independent, healthy lives for themselves. This innovative effort to support a new generation of safe and secure Zambian girls is led by the Population Council, in partnership with the Young Women’s Christian Association of Zambia, in collaboration with the government of Zambia and with the support of the British government.
The Adolescent Girls Empowerment Program, or AGEP, takes on the factors, such as poverty and isolation, which put our girls at such high risk for HIV. AGEP gives girls the support they need to develop their self-esteem, build their economic independence, stay healthy and avoid some of the most dangerous risk factors for HIV, including school drop-out, early marriage and gender-based violence.
More than 10,000 girls ages 10-19 from communities across Zambia receive critical life skills support through AGEP, including:
- Mentoring and support in girls-only “safe spaces,” group meetings, where girls receive vital training on sexual and reproductive health, life skills and managing their finances.
- Health vouchers, which girls can use to access and obtain high quality health education and services.
- And a personal savings account and financial education, to help girls budget, save money and build their financial independence.
The skills that AGEP promotes are key to helping girls become strong, self-sufficient women and, importantly, to helping them avoid the factors, such as financial dependence on older men that can increase their risk for HIV and AIDS.
“AGEP has helped us a lot with our dreams and what we want to do in life,” said Keliness, a thirteen year-old AGEP participant from the Misisi compound in Zambia. “Because sometimes there are challenges that set you back. And then you say to yourself that these challenges cannot set me back and I need to move forward and continue. My dreams cannot be broken.”
AGEP illustrates how all parts of our society have a role to play in building healthier lives for girls. Mentors in the program are chosen from among young women in the community, who are trained to help girls to find their voices and reach their potential. Public and private health centers open their doors to provide high quality services to girls in the program. And NATSAVE, the National Savings and Credit Bank, has developed special accounts and financial literacy training for AGEP participants.
AGEP is undergoing a rigorous evaluation to understand its impact on both biological outcomes for girls, such as reductions in HIV, herpes and unintended pregnancies, as well as behavioral outcomes, such as staying in school and avoiding early marriage. Preliminary results are positive, and were presented for the first time to Zambian policy-makers last month. Halfway through the program, these results include an increase in girls’ self esteem, financial literacy and savings, increased condom use and decreases in unwanted sex. All of these changes hold the promise of a better future for these girls as they become young women.
The lessons we’re learning in Zambia are also attracting attention from international policy makers. Government programs such as PEPFAR and major private sector funders such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have identified investing in adolescent girls as a top priority in reducing the HIV epidemic. A new initiative called DREAMS will build on the experiences of AGEP and other programs to address the factors that increase girls risk for HIV, including poverty, gender inequality, sexual violence and a lack of education, in ten of the African nations in which girls are at highest risk.
AGEP is committed to breaking the devastating cycles that threaten the health and well-being of girls. And a new 19-minute documentary film and photography series, “My Dreams Cannot be Broken,” explores how AGEP finds the best ways to help girls in Zambia become the women they aspire to be. This World AIDS Day, Zambians can be proud that this innovative local effort is making a difference for our girls, and may become a model for new approaches to healthy girlhood in other nations as well.