COVID-19, like the HIV epidemic before it, is a global health emergency. The global response, including Team Europe’s €36 billion package, shows that we acknowledge the seriousness. That much is clear. But, beyond that, HIV and COVID have also laid bare the entrenched social injustices and basic inequalities between and within countries, including gender inequalities. To millions of women and girls around the world, these are painfully real.
Even before COVID, HIV had exposed the inequality fault lines and the devastating impact of the gender divide. For example, as the UNAIDS 2020 Global Report Seizing the Moment: tackling entrenched inequalities to end epidemics points out, in 2019, adolescent girls and young women aged 15 to 24 in sub-Saharan Africa made up about 10% of the population, yet they accounted for a quarter of all new HIV infections.
The COVID-19 lockdown has reportedly sparked a rise in sexual and gender-based violence. This is leaving women and girls even more vulnerable to HIV, to other sexually transmitted infections, and to unintended pregnancies.
These days, it seems, home is not always the safest place for women and girls to be.
But right now, for over a billion children worldwide, lockdown leaves them with no other option. For out-of-school girls, this can mean greater risk of sexual exploitation, early pregnancy, forced marriage and HIV infection. They may be obliged to put care for family members or household chores above studying. And with far less access than boys to the internet and mobile phone technology, distance education feels more like a distant dream.
We have to seize the moment
Why should we care? For the simple reason that not allowing women and girls an education is bad for them, and bad for us all. Whether in Europe or somewhere else, we are in this together.
It is bad for us all because we lose out as a society. For example, a lack of educational and job opportunities for young women and girls is estimated to cost sub-Saharan Africa’s economies $60 billion every year. This makes no economic sense; and as COVID-19 continues to drive down household incomes and school attendance figures, the situation is unlikely to improve in the short run.
There are solutions at hand, however – if, to borrow from the Global Report’s title, we are brave enough to seize the moment.
If we invest smartly – and if we empower women and girls to make the best of their potential in all walks of life – we can turn the situation around.
Making sure that all girls complete at least secondary school, and that they can assert their sexual and reproductive health and rights, brings countless benefits and ticks many sustainable development boxes. It improves health outcomes, it boosts gender equality and it furthers overall social and economic development. Botswana is a good example of how education improves health outcomes. After the country extended compulsory secondary education, it found that each additional year of schooling brought a 12% reduction in the risk of girls becoming infected with HIV.
That is why we urge leaders and partners to take decisive steps towards achieving free secondary education for all. If young women and girls complete secondary education they can help improve their own well-being, contribute to family incomes, close the gender gap, and set their countries firmly on the road to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals. More than that, they can become agents for change and leaders of the future.
Working together for better results
In the meantime, the European Union is pursuing its efforts with partner countries worldwide to address inequality in all its forms – including, of course, where it affects gender and access to education.
Working with its Member States as Team Europe, the European Union has demonstrated the power of working together for better results. It has put together a global response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a major supporter of global health initiatives like the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. And it provides more than half of global official development assistance for education.
The EU and the UN have a proven track record of getting results from their partnerships. Here, too, we can make a real difference. Working together, UNAIDS and Team Europe have the chance to push for progress in improving gender equality in education systems as a whole. We also need to support early childhood learning in national programmes to reduce inequalities.
Using digitalisation we can make national education systems more inclusive and equitable. It is also important to promote universal access to sexual and reproductive health services for all, and especially for girls, in the national education programmes.
In addition, together we can address the school-related, gender-based violence in national programmes and promote safe learning environments with water and sanitation facilities. Finally, we have to help our partner countries to eradicate all forms of child labour that keep children out of full-time day education.
At the end of the day, giving young women and girls the freedom to learn is a win-win for society. It builds healthier individuals, families, communities and economies. All in all, it makes for a healthier society. A fairer society, in which everyone has the space to grow and no one is left behind. What more could any of us wish for our future generations?