HIV: Why young African women are most at risk

Staff members of the Themba Lethu Clinic in Johannesburg, the largest antiretroviral treatment site in the country, posing behind candles commemorating World Aids Day.

Story highlights

  • Women account for 60% of the total number of people living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa
  • UNAIDS: Young women are facing a triple threat; high risk of HIV infection, low rates of HIV testing and poor adherence to HIV treatment

(CNN)The number of new HIV infections 'is not declining' and young women the world over are still at risk.

"Young women are facing a triple threat; high risk of HIV infection, low rates of HIV testing and poor adherence to HIV treatment," said Michel Sidibé, UNAIDS Executive Director said in his 2016 World AIDS Day message.
    UN Women identified additional factors that prevent adolescent girls and young women from protecting themselves against HIV; gender-based violence, limited access to health care and education coupled with systems and policies that do not address the needs of young people.
    People living with HIV present communiqué to policy makers
    According to a 2015 UNAIDS report, young women aged 15- 24 had the highest risk of being infected with HIV. In sub-Saharan Africa, the most affected region in the world, the situation is even more alarming. Women account for 60% of the total number of people living with the virus in west and central Africa.
    "Africa still has a very patriarchal culture," Francis Umoh, the program director for Positive Action for Treatment Access (PATA), a Nigerian NGO that supports people living with HIV, told CNN. "Many women are not allowed to negotiate the use of condoms."
    Umoh went onto explain that women are forced to submit themselves to the desires of their husbands, if these men have multiple partners, women are exposed to the risk of infection.
    "As long as there's still masculinity and women subordination, there's going to a problem," he said.

    Stigma and Discrimination

    When Temidayo Oyedemi discovered she had HIV she felt as though she had been 'handed a death sentence.'
    "In the year 2000 HIV was not the way we talk about it now," Oyedemi told CNN. "Then, the only thing the media could use to talk about HIV was a dead skull stuff with death written on it, meaning that if you get it you're going to die."
    Oyedemi didn't reveal her status to her family for 7 years, after which she got involved with PATA where she now works. Oyedemi said stigma surrounding HIV has reduced over the years, but there's still a lot to be done.
    "We need to stop seeing HIV as one disease that God has sent to punish those having sex," she said.
    "This attitude of its not my problem, its not my business. It could happen to anybody, HIV is everybody's business. It could be your sister, it could be your daughter, your niece or your mum. We all have to come together and see how we can help."
    HIV Quick Facts

    Young women aged 15- 24 had the highest risk of being infected with HIV

    60% of the total numbers of people living with HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa were women.

    Number of new HIV infections has not reduced

    HIV related deaths globally have decreased by 45%

    Source: UNAIDS

    Discrimination against people because of their status is illegal in Lagos, but Oyedemi told CNN it still happens regularly. Schools and organizations routinely refuse to employ or admit people with HIV.
    "Unfortunately, HIV is still part of the medicals," Oyedemi said. "Unfortunately if someone tests positive that person will not be given admission or that person will not be employed."
    This is one of the factors that led to the creation of 'Mary's Home,' a home for HIV positive adolescent girls in Lagos, PATA sought to create a safe space for girls abandoned by their families and rejected from other children's homes because of their status. The home currently houses 5 girls between the ages of 10-16.

    'Time to take care of our own'

    In 2005, former President of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo declared antiretroviral drugs free of charge in Nigeria relieving the financial burden of HIV treatment.
    Umoh says international donors that have been assisting Nigeria with funding are gradually withdrawing funds. Drugs are still free but other services now come at a cost. This increased cost means that many women are forced to stop receiving treatment.
    "Someone that cannot afford 200 naira for transport, you're asking them to pay 1000 naira for user fee, how is that possible?" Umoh said.
    Rather than relying on international assistance Umoh strongly believes it's time for Nigerians to take care of themselves in relation to treatment.
    "These are Nigerians not foreigners," he said. "Government has the capacity to take care and also begin to support these treatments."

    Getting to Zero

    In a 2015 statement President Buhari said he wanted to ensure an 'Aids free generation by 2030 through the elimination of mother to child transmission of HIV.'
    Umoh and Oyedemi say getting to zero is possible, but it won't be easy.
    "If we must get to zero we need to really really talk about HIV, we need to deal with stigma and discrimination," Oyedemi said.
    "We need people to understand that because somebody has HIV does not mean you cant work together or live together. It is possible to get to zero, but we all need to work together- religious leaders, traditionally leaders everybody."
    "The government needs to increase funding," Umoh added. "We need to be more focused on results not activities."