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Girls’ education – a lethal blow to AIDS

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©Mark Read
Angeline Mugwendere

By Ann Cotton
Executive Director, CAMFED International

“If only they had been as lucky as I was, they would be alive today. If only they had got into school and remained, they would not have become so desperate.”     -- Angeline Mugwendere

December 2006 – Angeline Mugwendere, 26, fears that almost half of her classmates from primary school in rural Zimbabwe are HIV positive by now. Some of her fellow pupils have already died from related illnesses.

The statistics are chilling. Across Zimbabwe, more than 3,000 people die each week from AIDS. The official HIV infection rate is one in four. That rate is far higher in the desperately poor rural areas, where life expectancy for women is just 34.

Angeline might have become one of these statistics herself. Her parents were subsistence farmers with little income for food, let alone school fees. Although she achieved some of the best exam results in her district, she was about to drop out of school when the Campaign for Female Education (CAMFED) stepped in to provide her with school fees, a uniform and books so that she could carry on with her studies.

Many of Angeline’s friends were not so fortunate. One of Angeline’s friends got married when she was just 13 years old. Others went on to sleep with older men – “sugar daddies” – in return for the longed-for cash to remain in school.

“It might sound a foolish decision they took, but I knew it was not foolishness that forced them to do that. It was the effect of exclusion,” says Angeline.

“They wanted an education and to be recognised because of it – to be looked up to by their communities. They wanted their families to be proud of them when they got a degree or when they came back to work in local clinics as nurses.”

It’s no coincidence that nearly 57 per cent of the 25 million people living with HIV and AIDS in Africa are women. That figure rises to 80 per cent among young women between the ages of 15 and 18. Women are biologically more vulnerable to HIV, but the main problem they face is powerlessness and poverty.

This combination of circumstances forces them into sexual activity at an early age, they lack the power to say no or to insist on condoms to protect themselves. Often they are forced to barter sexual favours to survive. The decisions they are forced to make in order to survive in the short term are paradoxically the equivalent to a death sentence in the longer term.

Educating young women like Angeline is widely recognised as the most effective weapon to combat poverty and the spread of HIV and AIDS in Africa. When girls are educated, they marry later, have fewer children and their incomes increase by 15% for every year of education beyond primary school.

Angeline is living proof of the benefits that education can bring. Today, she is sharing the benefits of that education by helping to support thousands of rural girls through school as the Director of CAMFED Zimbabwe.

She has also been instrumental in setting up a pan-African network of 4,700 young women who have been supported by CAMFED through school and have gone on to become doctors, lawyers, teachers and business women.

These successful young women are now at the vanguard of change. Working in their own rural communities, they are breaking down many of the stigmas that surround AIDS by confronting issues such as early marriage and “sugar daddies”, and by encouraging women’s social and economic empowerment. Out of their own pockets, these young women are helping to support more than 16,000 children through school.

“The bottom line is that it would be much easier for girls to protect themselves if they just had the opportunity to go to school,” says Angeline.

“If a girl is confident, it’s easier for her to negotiate for safe sex. There’s an opportunity for her to say no.”

Educating girls offers a lethal threat to HIV and AIDS in Africa. If we are going to beat the spread of AIDS – and we must – we have to invest in the young women of Africa today. 


 

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