Empowering adolescent girls and young women to make informed decisions, so they can get the future they want – and deserve
South Africa and the world are struggling to deal with the health and economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. In South Africa, however, the pandemic and subsequent national lockdown have also had a devastating social impact, through an increase in gender-based violence (GBV).
Brought into the country’s spotlight by President Ramaphosa, who said that “Gender-based violence impacts us all”, there isn’t a more appropriate time to bring GBV issues to the fore than now, as we enter the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children campaign. In his weekly letter to the nation he appealed to individuals and communities to be active participants and help fight to end violence against women and girls. According to the World Health Organisation, worldwide, 1 in 3 women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence, making this one of the largest and most widespread human rights violations in the world.
GBV is a contributing factor to HIV infection in South Africa, which has the largest HIV epidemic in the world. It’s adolescent girls and young women, between the ages of 15-24, who are disproportionately affected. Globally, according to UNAIDS statistics, there are approximately 5 500 new HIV infections every week in this age group, which breaks down to approximately 785 new infections per day.
Why are adolescent girls and young women at a higher risk for HIV infection than their male counterparts and other age groups? “There are numerous factors,” says Dr Albert Machinda, HIV expert, researcher and COO at Shout-It-Now, a South African non-profit organisation specialising in mobile, community-based HIV counselling, testing and prevention services.
“Stigma is one of the biggest drivers of HIV. Adolescent girls and young women choose not to get tested because they are embarrassed or fearful of what the result may be. In addition, there are larger, inherent inequalities in our society that make this group more vulnerable, including poverty, lack of opportunities, discrimination and GBV,” says Machinda.
“We aren’t winning the battle in this age group and it’s very concerning that the infection rates are so high. We need to talk more about available treatments and the effects they have in controlling the disease. If this is made clearer and the message is more widespread, we help to reduce the stigma and empower these girls and women to make more informed decisions,” says Machinda.
Shout-It-Now provides free HIV prevention services, including: HIV testing services, Pre-exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) – a relatively new, safe and highly effective HIV prevention medication – condom provision, sexual reproductive health services (contraceptives and sexually transmitted infections screening) and behavioural interventions, to adolescent girls and young women in Gauteng and the North West, where it currently operates. These services are aimed at empowering adolescent girls and young women to make independent, informed life decisions.
Funded by PEPFAR (the United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Shout-It-Now has been working closely with the South African Department of Health to make PrEP more accessible particularly to adolescent girls and young women.
“Taken daily, PrEP is a highly effective, extra prevention option for HIV-negative people,” says Machinda. “With proper adherence and compliance from the patient, you reduce the risk of getting HIV from sex by more than 99%. However, our biggest problem is that it is not widely known. So in partnership with the Department of Health, we’re working to make these tablets more accessible, while providing essential education that empowers adolescent girls and young women in particular, to make an informed decision to take PrEP and prevent the risk of contracting HIV.”
Young women should have the right to choose to take PrEP as part of a healthy, active sex life. With more education about PrEP, young women can perceive their own risk and make their own decision to take it, so they can live a healthy tomorrow.
Total health solutions
In addition to free HIV testing, PrEP initiation and maintenance, and GBV prevention, awareness and post-violence care, Shout-It-Now, together with its partners, also provides a range of behavioural programmes that focus on HIV and violence prevention. By planning, guiding and supporting clients through family, romantic, platonic, financial and lifestyle relationships, clients are given the building blocks and courage they need to take control of their lives.
“We understand that each adolescent girl and young woman has unique needs and aspirations,” says Cristianne Wendler, Behavioural Programme and GBV Manager. “This is why we take a client-centric approach that puts their needs at the centre of our efforts. Our services are convenient to access and are designed to empower, educate and equip each of our clients to make their own choices for the future they want.”
Clients who join Shout-It-Now are monitored and supported along their individual journey, to encourage them to complete their specific programme and set them up for a healthier future.
“Our focus on this specific group is because they are so disproportionately affected by GBV and HIV. Society doesn’t tell these adolescent girls that they are valued and have worth. Society doesn’t tell these young women that they have choices. We send a different message at Shout-It-Now. We take the journey with each one of our clients, because we believe in doing everything we can to help them own their healthy tomorrow, no matter what their today looks like. While every day is important, as we enter the 16 Days of Activism Campaign, we want all adolescent girls and young women out there to know that we see them, we hear them and they matter,” says Wendler.
Contact Shout-It-Now through their WhatsApp number: +27 10 020 6021, or for more information visit https://shoutitnow.org/; or speak to a call centre agent on: +27 10 020 6021.