Reflection from young women delegates in ICASA 2019

From rhetoric to action: Reflection from young women delegates who participated in ICASA 2019

5 February 2020

The International Conference on AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections in Africa (ICASA) is a major international AIDS conference which takes place every two years in Africa. The 2019 ICASA was held between 4 and 7 December in Rwanda, bringing together over 10,000 delegates from nearly 150 countries to shape policy, research and advocacy direction in the lead up to the UNAIDS global 90-90-90 targets in 2020.

According to the UNICEF Global Snapshot, adolescent and young women remain a high priority group with 3 in 4 new HIV infections among adolescents aged 10-19 occurring in girls. Recognizing that effective strategies for curving the epidemic need to respond to the lived experiences of young women and girls, the ATHENA Network in partnership with UNICEF have been working to promote leadership skills in young women and adolescent girls to influence policy and programmes on HIV prevention and response. ATHENA and UNICEF sponsored a cohort of young women delegates to represent the young women voices at the Conference. Young women delegates actively participated at ICASA 2019 in several ways, including by providing input on technical panel, giving interviews with the media, moderating sessions and engaged in social media conversations during the conference. The Conference also presented young women with a learning and networking opportunity with cross sectoral partners from government, civil society, academia and the private sector.

Following ICASA 2019, UNICEF asked young women delegates to reflect on the take away messages from ICASA and the implications for girls and young women going into the next decade. Here are their responses.

NYASHA SITHOLE, ATHENA Network member and a representative of adolescent girls and young women in the Global HIV prevention coalition and the Start Free, Stay Free, AIDS free working groups

The next decade is very important when it comes to issues of gender equity, young women's leadership as it is the time we are looking at achieving the SDGs particularly Goal 3,4 and 5 which speak directly to the wellbeing and resilience of girls and young women. So for me this is a time to move away from rhetoric conversations on SRHR and HIV for AGYW to action. We need action to remove all barriers including age of consent, criminalisation and moralisation of sex work and sexuality. We need to see political will and political action to see all the commitments being implemented. The flow also has to change it has to start from us in our constituencies and in our communities as change agents till we realise the global goals.

REJOICE EVE NAMALE, ATHENA Network’s #WhatWomenWant and #WhatGirlsWant Focal Lead for Malawi

We need to tailor human rights to HIV interventions and policies. We need to develop research agendas that take a comprehensive approach to integrating bio-medical and social context to develop multi-purpose new prevention technology, expand the method mix and innovate HIV treatment options with adolescent girls and young women at the center.

We should invest in adolescent girls and young women as change agents, decision-makers, and experts in their own right to conceptualize, lead, implement, and advance their own solutions and initiatives.

To reduce the number of new HIV infections among adolescent girls and young women from 390 000 in 2015 to below 100 000 in 2020 we need to learn to re-strategize, learn from each other and adopt positive strategies.

IRENE OGETA, ATHENA Network member and young women advocate

Gender inequality  must be tackled because this is the only way to end the global HIV epidemic and achieve other broader development outcomes because HIV affects AGYW and women disproportionately because of their unequal power dynamics between men and women.

The global community will never deliver on ending AIDS if young people are not fully engaged and in the lead since the young people are the most effective engine for social change.

To tackle the persisting barriers, more efforts are needed to challenge harmful laws, policies  and practices that negatively impact young people’s access to services including age and spousal consent requirements, early and forced marriages, lack of comprehensive sexuality education, lack of harm reduction services and criminalization against young key populations. Data gives us direction, measures the impact of our work at the grassroot level.

There is a need to focus on the needs and priorities of the adolescent girls and young women and fund initiatives implementing the same intervention. It is clear that pafrticipation and inclusion of is a core human rights principle. Moreover, the sustainability of HIV response highly depends  on our  capacity to reach the most marginalized, including, young people to address their specific needs. The effectiveness of programs and interventions targeting young people can be ensured with the full participation of young people in their design, monitoring and implementation.

JENNIFER KAYOBO, young woman advocate from Tanzania

I was able to meet and interact with different young people who have launched different initiatives to help in providing information and education on SRH and advocating for improvement of service provision in the community. There are challenges that remain as some harmful cultural belief and stigma still exist.

I had an opportunity to co-host the UNICEF and UNAIDS session on what it will take to end AIDS epidemic among adolescent young girls and women in Africa. It was quite an experience because the session had high profile people like the First lady of Rwanda and the Minister of Health in Rwanda. I learnt how to prepare for such a session with all the protocols but also how dedicated our elders are in supporting us to ensure we unleash our potential. I was privileged to witness how young women can be powerful in coming together and work as a team from different countries and background. We are unstoppable.

This opportunity helped me to learn and improve my way of thinking. I had so much to learn from the elders who have been in this space for so long. I believe young girls and women are the present, we just need to be heard. Let us be educated on our rights and be empowered to take up space and positions in the society to fully reach our potential.