Protecting Young Women through Empowerment

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The Interagency Youth Working Group worked with USAID to sponsor a meeting yesterday entitled “Protecting and Empowering Adolescent Girls: Evidence for the Global Health Initiative.”  The meeting featured a series of presentations from leaders in the global health field, which aimed to identify factors contributing to girls’ vulnerability to HIV and reproductive health risks, as well as to share effective programmatic approaches and research that address such risks.  In one of the panels, entitled “Empowering Adolescent Girls,” panelists spoke of their respective organization’s projects in developing countries, aimed at empowering young girls as a strategy to deal with the HIV/AIDS epidemic. 

Facilitator Victoria Collins, of Cardno Emerging Markets, discussed the need to invest in the development of young girls as a way to uplift entire communities.  Investing in young girls not only empowers them but empowers their families and ultimately, their whole communities.  Young girls and women in developing countries are often unable to negotiate sex on their terms and ensure their sexual safety, and are particularly vulnerable to being infected by HIV/AIDS as a result.  As HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death among women of reproductive age worldwide, it is imperative that young women are equipped with the power and knowledge to protect themselves from being infected by the disease.

Worknesh Kereta, of Pathfinder International, spoke of her organization’s women and girl’s empowerment program in Ethiopia, in which they reached over eight million young girls and women with information about sexual and reproductive health, as one part of their multifaceted model to equip girls with the information, skills, and knowledge needed to empower themselves and their communities.  One of their aims is to reduce the prevalence of STI’s and HIV, and they plan to achieve this by spreading awareness of the disease. 

At the end of the program in 2009, 52 percent of women participating in the program had been tested for HIV, a 26 percent increase from the baseline.  In addition, 35 percent of the women were using modern contraceptives at the end of the program, up from 25 percent in 2007.  Kereta also emphasized the importance of reaching out to young boys before attitudes discriminatory towards women were formed as a way to promote gender equity in the future.

Betty Ochieng of Family Health International (FHI) discussed their “House-Girls Health and Life Skills Project” in Nairobi, Kenya, in which community development workers reached out to domestic workers, commonly known as “house-girls”, with the aim to equip these often illiterate and vulnerable young people with the skills and knowledge needed to ensure their sexual and reproductive health.  Of the 277 young women who directly participated in the program, half were sexually active, 12.5 percent had sex in exchange for money in the past, and seven percent had faced sexual violence.  

Because house-girls are often only allowed enough free time to attend church once a week, the program was implemented through churches, with congregation members acting as lead trainers.  In addition to the 277 that were reached through the program directly, 910 more were reached through 22 trained peer educators, and an estimated 27,830 were reached through media efforts.  HIV/AIDS and STI awareness greatly increased as a result of these efforts.

These projects illustrate how simple it can be to equip young women with the tools they need to empower themselves and consequently protect themselves from being infected by HIV/AIDS, and other STIs.

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