The UN High Level Taskforce on Women, Girls, Gender Equality and HIV for Eastern and Southern Africa concluded their one-week high-level political advocacy mission in South Africa on Saturday, calling for renewed effort and commitment to protect the health and rights of young girls in the country.
Hosted by the Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities, members of the Taskforce met with South Africa's high-level political leadership, the United Nations in South Africa, civil society organisations and other stakeholders working on the HIV response. They held discussion with networks of women, people living with HIV and lesbian, gay, bisexual transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) communities as part of their assessment process.
South Africa signed the Accelerated Agenda for Women and Girls on HIV and Aids in 2010. The Taskforce is in the country to do a mid-term review. The Department invited the task force to South Africa to do an independent assessment of the extent to which the country has been able to discharge its responsibilities and to share their views and experiences on the critical issues facing women and girls in the country - teenage pregnancy, gender based-violence, prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV (PMTCT) and sex work.
"The work done by the Task Force will help us identify gaps and challenges which will enable us to develop more effective intervention programmes", said the Deputy Minister of the Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities, Ms Hendrietta Bopane-Zulu.
Progress on Prevention of mother to child transmission (PMTCT)
Dr Naomi Shaban, Kenyan Minister of Gender, Children and Social Development - who is the leader of the delegation - applauded the Government of South Africa for its efforts in PMTCT. "South Africa has done a commendable job in significantly reducing transmission of HIV from pregnant women to their new borns," said Dr Shaban.
South Africa has seen a decrease in MTCT from 3.5% in 2010 to 2.7% in 2011 and is well on its way to meeting the 2011 Political Declaration on HIV/Aids target of virtual elimination of PMTCT by 2015.
Elimination of new HIV infection among children and keeping their mothers alive dominated a discussion between the Taskforce and South Africa's Minister of Health, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi. While acknowledging the drop in MTCT, Dr Shaban said more still needs to be done to keep mothers alive.
South Africa has developed a programme with four outcome areas - increasing live expectancy; addressing maternal mortality, dealing with TB and HIV, and strengthening the health care system.
High teenage pregnancy
Despite South Africa's progress in the HIV response, women and girls remain disproportionately affected by the epidemic. Young girls, particularly teenagers are vulnerable to unplanned pregnancy and HIV infection. The Department of Basic Education (DBE)'s General Household Survey 2010 indicates that 1% of female learners attending school fell pregnant in 2009/10, equating to approximately 89,390 girls.
"Prevention of unplanned pregnancies and HIV infection in young girls must be a major priority of the South African government", said Professor Sheila Tlou, Regional Director of UNAIDS and a member of the Taskforce. "Keeping girls in school is the best thing we can do to reduce new infections among girls and women and help them to reach their potential".
Gender-based violence and stigma increase the risk of vulnerability to HIV
Gender-based violence (GBV) remains a major challenge in South Africa. Brutal hate crimes against the LGBTI community, and in particular, "corrective" rape of lesbians, formed the basis of discussions on GBV. The Taskforce discussed how these crimes create a climate of fear and drive communities underground, fuelling HIV infection.
Deputy Minister Bogopane-Zulu said that any programme aimed at addressing gender-based violence and HIV prevention must target men: "We have a responsibility to mobilise, educate and empower men and ensure that they are part of the solution".
Dr. Shaban commended Minister Lulu Xingwana for initiating the National Council Against Gender-Based Violence, and urged her department to strengthen the Council's capacity fight gender-based violence as part of addressing HIV and Aids.
"Our collective conscience as a nation must refuse to accept that women and girls continue to perish from preventable disease as a result of our failure to place gender equality and women's empowerment at the centre of our policies," stressed Minister Xingwana.