Health, Live Coverage, Sexual & Reproductive Health & Rights
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What We Need to Know About HIV & Adolescent Girls

Eleanor Post IAC

The term ‘adolescent girls’ encompasses, in theory, all those aged 10-24. In reality, the lower section of that age bracket – the 10-19 year olds specifically – receive the least attention and are therefore the least comprehensively catered for when it comes to HIV/AIDS information and services.

So what do we know?

  • There is no country in the world where we don’t have adolescents living with HIV, and adolescent girls remain disproportionately affected.
  • There are 990,000 girls between 10-19 years old living with HIV globally. For boys of the same age, that figure drops to 770, 000.
  • Every hour, 26 adolescents are infected with HIV – two thirds of these are girls.
  • Adolescent AIDS-related deaths are increasing.
  • Very young adolescents are generally overlooked, since at this age they face a relatively low burden of disease. However, 10-14 is a critical life phase for shaping future health and development.

And what don’t we know?

  • There are HUGE differences between 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14 year old girls, but we don’t have data that represents those differences by being divided up into specific age intervals.
  • There are considerable barriers to conducting research with adolescent girls which we don’t know how to overcome. For example, adults are often uncomfortable when dealing with adolescents in general, as well as with sexuality in general. This makes dealing with adolescent sexuality pretty problematic for many.
  • We are confused about adolescent’s ability to provide informed consent. Too often we think of them as children and judge their capacity to consent to research accordingly.

What can we do?

ROLE MODELS
Having a positive image of someone who is older, but not too much older, motivates young adolescents to feel that they belong to a kind of community, and that their hopes and dreams are worth spending time on.

PEER-TO-PEER SUPPORT
Very young adolescents find it more comfortable and easier to receive information from a peer. Well-informed peer educators can disperse knowledge and skills in a non-intimidating, non-alienating way.

SAFE SPACES
There need to be places for young people to start talking about their sexual and fertility needs. An adolescent girl needs to feel that it’s ok to walk up to another person and say “I’m sexually active”, or “I’m thinking about having sex.” It requires physical space; whether it’s actual chairs where you sit and talk or virtual space that exists online, where dialogues can happen comfortably and openly.

SHIFTING MINDSETS
We need to enable and support a shift in  the mindsets of those providing information and care, because too often the values and mindsets of providers conflict with the needs of young people. In many countries, a 14 year old girl coming to a clinic looking for contraception will be met first and foremost with an interrogation about why she is thinking about having sex at her age at all.

FAMILY PLANNING
The very term ‘family planning’ alienates adolescents, since the whole point is that they’re trying to avoid having a family. What young girls are looking for is contraception and protection.

SEX EDUCATION
We need information that isn’t so broad, that’s more age specific. There is no other subject that you’d approach in the same with with a 10 year old and a 13 year old. The best case scenario is that information is either too complex or too simple, and the worst is that it’s patronising, alienating, intimidating, or confusing.

If we truly want to #EndHIV4Her, we need to zoom in on very young adolescent girls and acknowledge their specific needs.

Girls’ Globe is present at the 2016 International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa (17-22nd of July). Follow our team on social media @GirlsGlobe, @FHI360 & @JNJGlobalHealth and by using the hashtag #EndHIV4Her for inspiring blog posts, interviews and updates! To sign up for the daily In Focus Newsletter visit crowd360.org/aids2016/.

Cover Photo Credit: World Bank, Flickr Creative Commons

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