This year, the International Day of the Girl (IDG) – October 11 – comes at a time of great uncertainty. In many countries, girls are facing multiple threats, including COVID-19, HIV, and gender-based violence (GBV). While HIV and GBV are longstanding challenges, the impact of COVID-19 is newly exacerbating the risks they pose for girls in communities around the world. Girls need support now more than ever to achieve gender equality and realize an AIDS-free future.
This IDG, we join the world in celebrating and uplifting the voices and leadership of girls to ensure an equal and healthy future for all. The inclusion of HIV as one of this year’s IDG official themes is critical for raising awareness about the unacceptably high prevalence of HIV in girls, especially in southern and east Africa. In some countries girls are up to 14 times more likely to be infected with HIV than boys their same age1. This is due to the complex vulnerabilities driven by entrenched gender inequality and harmful norms.
The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) is deeply committed to addressing these vulnerabilities head-on, including through our DREAMS public-private partnership (DREAMS stands for Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored, and Safe). DREAMS aims to significantly reduce new HIV infections in adolescent girls and young women (AGYW) across 15 high-burden countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean.
From modeled data, we know that DREAMS is having an important impact – as we have seen reductions in new HIV diagnoses in antennal care settings for AGYW in the geographic areas implementing the program. We are expanding on this progress as, this year alone, PEPFAR has doubled our annual investment in DREAMS, which brings our total investment in DREAMS to almost $1 billion since 2014.
For girls to remain AIDS-free, we must support them to live free from GBV and other harmful practices. PEPFAR is dedicated to reducing GBV by meaningfully engaging local communities to address harmful gender norms and raise awareness about the prevalence of violence in girls’ everyday lives. According to CDC’s Violence Against Children surveys, girls and young women often experience violence from intimate partners or trusted adults starting at a very young age, which can lead to a lifetime of adverse experiences.
There is global concern that movement restrictions and economic tensions due to the COVID-19 pandemic have the potential to increase violence experienced by AGYW living with their abusers. Our partners are working to stay connected with DREAMS beneficiaries virtually, providing ongoing support during these challenging times. As lockdowns ease in some countries, girls are returning to DREAMS safe spaces, while adhering to COVID-19 safety guidelines to prevent spread of the virus.
This year’s IDG theme is: “my voice, our equal future.” Meaningful community engagement and input drive all PEPFAR programs, and DREAMS is no exception. We have kept AGYW at the center of our programs from the outset to best support them in staying AIDS-free. Every DREAMS country relies on the leadership of its capable and fearless DREAMS Ambassadors – who are AGYW themselves – to elevate the priorities and interests of girls most vulnerable to HIV. Whether engaging with local implementing partners, partner governments, or international audiences, DREAMS girls are leading the way. Their inputs highlight key gaps, drive program improvements, and strengthen our annual country operational planning process to ensure PEPFAR remains responsive to their needs.
DREAMS is not a moment; it is a movement. That is why, when AGYW speak, PEPFAR listens! We heard AGYW when they called for more ways to achieve economic self-sufficiency and depend less on men. We heard them when they wanted easier access to pre-exposure prophylaxis and to feel more comfortable when seeking health services.
PEPFAR will continue to listen to and partner with AGYW – not only on IDG but every day – to ensure their voices are heard and their leadership is at the forefront, as we work together to create a more just and equitable future.
About the Author: Dr. Angeli Achrekar serves as the Principal Deputy U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, a Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary level position.