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Girl Power: girls' education, sexual behaviour and AIDS in Africa

Laying strong foundations for HIV protection and prevention

28 August 2006 - Girls educated to secondary and tertiary levels are more likely to wait before having sex, are much more likely to use condoms when they do have sex, and are therefore at much less risk of contracting HIV, according to a new report released on 15 August.

One of the latest trends in the development of AIDS in Africa is its increasing feminisation. In Africa, 6.3 million young people aged 15-24 are living with HIV & AIDS, and 74% of those are young women and girls.

In a systematic review of over 600 pieces of research on girls’ education, sexual behaviour and HIV, ActionAid has shown that secondary education provides African girls with the power to make sexual choices that prevent HIV infection.

The research shows that before 1995, educated girls were more vulnerable to AIDS. Post 1995, as sex education improved and a greater understanding of HIV prevention developed, more educated girls became less likely to contract HIV.

Report author, Tania Boler said: "Young women receiving higher levels of education are likely to wait longer before having sex for the first time, and are less likely to be coerced into sex. Strikingly, girls with more education are far more likely to use condoms and they are less likely to contract HIV."

The report’s findings challenge the increasingly vocal lobby which claims it is inappropriate to promote condoms widely in the fight against HIV.

"This report demonstrates the value of promoting condoms to a broad population including young people, and not only to high risk groups such as sex workers," said Tania Boler.

ActionAid finds that education gives girls power, reduces vulnerability and helps them make more independent, confident choices about their sexual behaviour.
The report shows that:

  • Schools and teachers are the most trusted source for young people to learn about HIV, and that school attendance ensures greater understanding of prevention messages. It also strengthens girls’ control, confidence and negotiating abilities to decide if to have sex, and when they do, whether to use a condom.
  • Peer group solidarity within school strengthens girls’ social networks and creates more responsible attitudes to sexual behaviour, safer sex and HIV.
  • Conversely, girls who drop out of school are more likely to enter into adult sexual networks, where older partners with more experience and power dictate the “rules” of sexual engagement.
  • Poverty and vulnerability to HIV are closely linked. More educated women have better economic and social prospects and consequently have more choices.

Despite the role of education in protecting girls from HIV infection, 110 million children worldwide do not receive an education. In Africa, 22 million girls have never been to primary school. Children still have to pay to go to primary school in 92 countries.

ActionAid recommends the abolition of school user fees in developing countries to achieve maximum access to education, broadening the curriculum to include sex education, encouraging teenage mothers back into education and that condoms should be more widely available for young people.


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