HIV and Women on International Day of the Girl

 By Domenic Crump, UVA Steering Committee Member and New Chapter Liaison

Having gone to an all-girls preparatory school, I have always valued the International Day of the Girl. Whether we were hearing from a guest speaker or watching a film featuring the power and capability of fellow girls around the world, global girlhood was celebrated and we were encouraged to feel proud of our own. Throughout the years, a recurring question popped into my mind in the midst of these events: How can I revel in my own girlhood when so many of my sisters are suffering?

But, at the same time that we celebrate girlhood, it is also important to note that many girls around the world are unable to participate in the joys of girlhood. In 2011, the United Nations declared October 11 as the International Day of the Girl Child as a means of addressing the specific obstacles girls face on a global scale while promoting their empowerment.

At our Fall Uprising event, I gave a presentation detailing how HIV/AIDS disproportionately affects women and girls worldwide. While many still perceive men who have sex with men (MSM) to be the face of the disease, the global AIDS epidemic has been radically feminized within the past decade, and that fact continues to be devalued. As a women’s health advocate, this is particularly heartbreaking. Girls and young women (10-24 years old) are twice as likely to acquire HIV as young men the same age because of their unequal cultural, social and economic status in society.

Girls and young women make up 70% of new HIV infections, largely due to transmission by older men. If these young women do not get access to treatment swiftly, a whole new cohort of young men will become infected, and we will again see rates rise similar to those of the early 2000s, the peak of the AIDS pandemic. Young women and adolescent girls account for a grossly disproportionate number of new HIV infections. It’s an issue of justice for women and young people.

Figures like this make one wonder if global girlhood even exists in the first place. President Trump’s expanded “Global Gag Rule” order magnifies this inequity and willfully puts girls and young women at even greater risk of HIV infection. This deadly policy prohibits any U.S. health funding from going to organizations that integrate HIV and sexual and reproductive health if abortion is even discussed. Under previous administrations, funding for the global AIDS response was exempt from the Global Gag Rule because it was seen as too important to interrupt. However, U.S. global AIDS funding has been cut and then stalled for years, and flat funding will not be enough to bring us to the end of AIDS. Because of our success in cutting down infant mortality, we have a large cohort coming of age, and at risk of becoming HIV positive if we don’t get community viral loads down, so we need to accelerate the numbers of people getting into treatment, or we’re going to miss the opportunity to stop transmission.

But there is hope. We have an opportunity to end the epidemic if we act swiftly and decisively now. And if we don’t, we also know we will see rates rise again due to demographic shifts in the epidemic. The evidence shows that the most effective health programs for women and girls integrate sexual health and reproductive rights with HIV services.

If we can get 30 million people onto life-saving anti-retrovirals by 2020, we can bring new infection rates down to a minimum and end AIDS as a public health crisis by 2030, helping all people living with HIV have long, healthy, productive lives. Ending the AIDS epidemic is not possible without increased funding for effective programs, and implementation of evidence-based strategies in the AIDS response to reach all women and girls.

I encourage everyone to demand their elected officials reject the deadly Global Gag Rule policy as a matter of law when they finish their budget this year, as well as cosponsor the Global HER act if they haven’t already.