World AIDS Day: Ending child marriage is key to our fight against HIV/AIDS
In sub-Saharan Africa, 75% of the 6.2 million young people aged 15-24 living with HIV are female.1 That equates to over 4.6 million young women.
And yet, this statistic does not acknowledge the number of even younger girls who are living with HIV/AIDS, many of them child brides. In sub-Saharan Africa, approximately 39% of girls are married before the age of 182 , some as young as 12 years old.
What does HIV/AIDS have to do with child marriage?
The older husbands of child brides have often had previous sexual partners, increasing their own lifetime risk of contracting HIV/AIDS and therefore, that of their young wife. This age gap tends to create a power imbalance, so girls are less likely to negotiate safe sex or even refuse sex. When a girl is married so young, she is often unable to finish school, therefore missing out on the empowerment and knowledge that education brings. Physiologically, young girls’ immature genital tracts, combined with a higher likelihood of intimate partner violence, put teenage brides at an even higher risk of contracting the disease. To put this all into context, in Zimbabwe, the prevalence of HIV is 6% among unmarried female youth aged 15 to 24, compared with 14% of those who are married.3
The tragedy of HIV/AIDS for girls comes full circle as AIDS is a leading cause of death amongst adults in sub-Saharan Africa. In these desperate situations, when a suddenly orphaned girl, heading up a household, cannot afford food or shelter, entering into a marriage can sometimes be seen as the only way to survive, and look after younger siblings.
In partnership with communities, specially-trained government teachers, and young women alumnae, CAMFED is tackling HIV/AIDS and child marriage through education. In line with World AIDS Day 2017: Right to Health, we look to address the undeniable correlation between child marriage and HIV/AIDS, and the disconnect in targeted service provision for some of the most marginalised and invisible girls in rural Africa.
Mercy Kansale, a CAMFED Teacher Mentor from Malawi, explains the need for increased awareness in her community: “Despite the prevalence of HIV and AIDS and the high rate of teenage pregnancy, these matters are not discussed in most homes. Culturally, sex is treated as a private matter, reserved for older, married people. By not talking it over with children parents feel that they are keeping an appropriate social distance. Many parents are also embarrassed or ashamed to speak about it.” This is combined with the social and geographical isolation of poor rural communities, making the girls most at risk the most hard to reach for prevention and treatment. In schools, many existing HIV/AIDS prevention strategies focus on abstinence, in direct contrast with the statistics showing the high numbers of young women who will enter into early marriage, and therefore be pressured into having unprotected sex with their husbands. In parts of rural Zambia, for example, as many as 6 in 10 girls are at risk of child marriage.
To combat this culture of silence around child brides and HIV/AIDS, Mercy is working with CAMFED alumnae (CAMA) members to educate girls on their rights, their sexual and reproductive health, and how they can seek information and advice. “We discuss the importance of being assertive and resisting peer pressure and also explain to girls how their reproductive system works and give counsel on HIV and AIDS. There are also extracurricular arrangements through clubs, a number of which provide a forum for seeking, accessing and discussing information on sex.”
With so many girls unable to access health services, counselling and testing, these dedicated community members bringing this information directly to girls in their communities and classrooms are a vital resource. They are figures that girls can relate to, and trust. Not only that, but CAMA members take a holistic approach, taking their sensitisation sessions to parents, teachers, and traditional leaders, ensuring that the fight to end child marriage and HIV/AIDS is a community effort.
1. Young People and HIV/AIDS: Opportunity in Crisis – UNAIDS [online] Available at: https://www.unaids.org/sites/default/files/media_asset/youngpeoplehivaids_en_0.pdf [Accessed 30/11/2017]
2. Child Marriage in sub-Saharan Africa: Girls Not Brides – Girls Not Brides / UNICEF [online] Available at: https://www.girlsnotbrides.org/region/sub-saharan-africa/ [Accessed 30/11/2017]
3. Worlds Apart: Reproductive health and rights in an age of inequality – UNFPA [online] Available at: https://zimbabwe.unfpa.org/en/publications/swop-2017-worlds-apart-reproductive-health-and-rights-age-inequality [Accessed 30/11/2017]