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Leave no girl behind

Submitted by unaidsadmin on Wed, 2015-02-18 02:04 - 0 Comments

“I was abused at nine,” Rushell tells the room. “Out of that I am HIV positive. My daughter is eight and she is not positive.”

Among the audience in the cramped, red conference room at the Jamaica National Family Planning Board is Michel Sidibé, the man at the helm of the United Nations Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). The petite young lady unflinchingly shares the story of her journey from innocence to the edge and then on to life-changing experience.

“It has been difficult. As a young girl in the community everybody turned a blind eye to me and they blamed me. Then I was the AIDS girl in community, walking around. Nobody said this man needs to go to jail. It was about me being the perpetrator and not the man. At one point I gave up because the stress was too high,” she recounts.

Rushell is confident, articulate. For this turnaround she credits the non-governmental organisation, Eve For Life, and its transformative programme. Through a combination of counselling, personal development and life skills education she’s become one of the powerhouse peer educators of Mentor Moms.

The Mentor Moms programme deploys young, empowered ladies who are themselves dealing with HIV and young motherhood to help others along the journey. They answer questions or offer reassurance. They accompany girls to their clinic visits. And they reinforce guidance on taking medicines, avoiding breast feeding and keeping clinic appointments. If the emotional weight of all of this becomes too heavy, they go to their resident psychologist to debrief.

Rushell clarifies that the issues her mentees face aren’t just about HIV: “They do not have resources; they are not safe in their houses; they are afraid a partner or their family might throw them out; they might have two children or more.”  

These girls aren’t anomalies. A 2012 survey noted that one in every five adolescent girls in Jamaica aged 15 - 19 reported having experienced sexual violence. One of four girls said they had exchanged sex for money or gifts.  Against this backdrop, HIV rates among girls quadruple during adolescence. Just about one percent of 15 – 24 year old pregnant women in Jamaica are living with HIV.

Eve for Life Executive Director and Co-founder Patricia Watson noted that many different classifications of girls are being left behind.

“A recent study showed that among girls in state care, 30% have sexually transmitted infections, 41% attempted suicide and 35% have been forced to have sex. Also children infected with HIV at birth are growing older and becoming sexually active, some without having been informed about their status,” Watson told Sidibé.

Ashley is another Mentor Mom. She starts: “I was sexually abused by my uncle at age 12 and contracted HIV. I was so depressed I did not know who to trust.

“What are we doing to help those who are in tears, who are in pain each day?” Ashley asks the rapt audience. “We walk with a scar. At age 9, age 12… how could that happen and everybody turn their eyes? It come like nothing to them… mothers, fathers, uncles, everyone is minding their business and the village as well.”

Here, in two halting stories, was the point that Sidibé had made during his discussions with the Jamaica Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, Health, and Labour and Social Services. Addressing HIV among adolescent girls is about far more than abstinence messages or condoms. It must also be about social protection. Communities often turn a blind eye, or offer little more than a disapproving glance, to child sexual abuse and sexual relationships between girls and older men. Sidibé insisted that emphasis should be placed on addressing the structural and social issues that increase girls’ vulnerability.

“You are demonstrating that we can never win against HIV if we don’t take HIV out of isolation. That is not resolved with pills. The problem is structural issues. We need to have courage to remove boundaries… make sure people should no longer accept gender inequality or the social construction that if I am the man I can abuse women as I want. Those issues call for challenging the political status quo. I am never tired,” he told the young ladies. “It is because of people like you.”

UNAIDS is encouraging HIV responses across the world to “Fast Track”. That means increasing HIV testing and treatment so that the majority of people living with the virus can come to a point where the level of HIV in their blood is so low that the risk of transmission dwindles to almost zero. That’s the science. The sociology and art of how we reach everyone—especially the most vulnerable—is what Jamaica must refine.

Inequality, violence, poverty, food insecurity and lack of access to education all put women and girls at higher risk of acquiring HIV. The UNAIDS World AIDS Day 2015 report, Focus on location and population, identifies adolescent girls and young women as the first key population for which prevention, treatment and care investments are required. The girls of Eve For Life prove that these investments pay off.

“In my community people look up to me now,” Rushell recounts. “I try to help my peers and help prevent other people from contracting HIV. A few years ago people thought I was dead. Now I am respected because I am somebody they can get information from.”

 

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The UNAIDS team offers the Caribbean the broad expertise of cosponsors and other UN organisations in areas such as program development and management, women and child health, education, legal networking, community care initiatives and resource mobilisation. The goal is an expanded response to HIV in the region with the world’s second highest HIV prevalence.