/ 8 March 2024

Only by protecting women’s rights can we protect women’s health

Gender-based violence is not a women’s-only issue nor is it an only-male problem. It is a human issue, a societal issue, a national issue. Photo: Marco Longari/AFP

The world is way off track to meet the gender targets that were set in the sustainable development goals. At the current rate of progress, it will take an estimated 300 years to end child marriage, 140 years for women to be represented equally in positions of power and leadership in the workplace, and 47 years to achieve equal representation in parliaments.

The global debt crisis is squeezing out investment in education, health and social protection, particularly hurting women and girls. Unequal access to education has left 122 million girls out of school, denying them lifesaving information on how to protect themselves from HIV.

As part of the United Nations sustainable development goals, the aim of ending Aids by 2030 is also in jeopardy. Every week, 3400 adolescent girls and young women aged 15 to 24 become infected with HIV.

The health of young women and girls today is too often shaped by gender-based inequalities and gender-based violence which increases the risk of HIV infection. 

In Southern Africa, a shocking 17% of women and girls have experienced intimate partner violence in the last 12 months and more than 8% have experienced sexual violence by someone who is not an intimate partner.

And now women face a new danger. The recent, well-coordinated and well-funded global pushback against women’s rights is not only a threat to freedom, it is a threat to public health.

This pushback on rights aims to roll back the gains made by women and girls in the 20th century. Foremost under attack are women and girls from the poorest, most marginalised communities. 

We need to put human rights at the centre of all our development efforts, just as we have been doing in the Aids movement for decades. 

For example, in Botswana, a policy to expand free and compulsory secondary education was found to produce a cumulative life-time risk reduction for HIV among students by about a third.

In some countries in sub-Saharan Africa, HIV infection rates were reduced by up to 50% in the cohort of adolescent girls who completed secondary education. In addition, one additional year of school can increase a woman’s eventual wage by 15% to  25%. 

And we need to be unwavering in our commitment to the most important leaders in advancing rights for all — the most affected women and girls. We need to put real economic resources into their hands.

There is a need for sustained investment in independent, autonomous feminist movements. Progress can only be sustained by putting power in the hands of those whose lives are most affected by the denial of rights. 

To protect women and girls’ health, protect women and girls’ rights.

Anne Githuku-Shongwe is the regional director for UNAids Eastern & Southern Africa.