Is Hopelessness Driving HIV in South Africa's Youth?

23 October 2017

"Why is HIV still the leading cause of death among girls aged 15 and 19 and how can we change this?,"asks Njabulo Mbanda, Health Systems coordinator of KwaNdengezi. Each week, 2,300 girls and young women are infected with HIV in South Africa. The nearest comparator is Uganda, with about 700 infections in this group per week. Great strides have been made in destigmatising HIV, and most schoolchildren can explain the basics of HIV and AIDS. So why is this knowledge and information not translating into behaviour change for HIV prevention? Why is it that HIV is the leading cause of death among girls between 15 and 19 years old in South Africa?

The answer lies in the complex cocktail of social, economic and cultural factors which compel efforts to curb the pandemic to change gear and scale up interventions. Adolescent girls and young women in South Africa face a toxic brew of inequality, unemployment and aggressive hyper-masculinity that creates massive levels of violence against women. For these young women, the impact of this combination is overwhelming and life-threatening. With youth unemployment at 67% among under-25s and their dreams of a better life for themselves dwindling, many young women feel utterly hopeless about their futures. This despair often translates into a fatalistic approach to health, and to their vulnerability to HIV infection in particular.

For the staff of Health Systems Trust (HST) who run mobile outreach clinics using the “test and treat” approach, there is no time to waste in reaching the goal of a 40% reduction in new infections among girls and young women by the end of 2017. Their aim is not merely to provide sexual and reproductive health services, but also to offer a glimmer of hope for young women. “Girls need a more empowering environment and the courage to speak up for themselves but it is not easy,” says nurse Nonhlanhla Mkhize. “It is important that they have access to youth-friendly services, so that they can be assisted by someone who understands them and their needs.”

Read the full article online here.