Dialogue about young women must continue beyond Women's Month

The transition from adolescence into womanhood comes with many challenges for young females. And for most, it occurs at a time when they are making crucial decisions about their futures. At this stage in their lives they are often entering into institutions of higher learning and taking crucial steps to acquire an education while battling with social issues such as those related to sex and substance abuse.Women are still more vulnerable than men – especially when it comes to sex – as they are often not empowered enough to ensure that they are protected.The Human Sciences Research Council's (HSRC) National HIV Prevalence, Incidence and Behaviour Survey released last year showed that the HIV incidence rate among females was four times higher than in the male population. The HSRC study also showed that there was a higher probability for female teenagers aged 15 to 19 to have sex with older partners compared to males. Also the HIV prevalence for women aged 15 to 49 is 8.7% higher than for men in the same age group. 

The Higher Education and Training HIV/AIDS and Training Programme (HEAIDS) is a comprehensive health and wellness programme designed to serve the student population spanning 429 campuses, dedicated to addressing health and other student issues. HEAIDS has a bouquet of seven youth programmes which provide services that include HIV and TB programmes. Women can also benefit from cervical cancer screening, dual contraception and educational resources aimed at curbing unplanned pregnancy which often results in many students dropping out of tertiary institutions. These activities are conducted through a women empowerment campaign called Zazi which was launched in honour of Women’s Month last year.HEAIDS places a huge emphasis on educating young people and encouraging them to make lifestyle choices that won’t jeopardise their health. Its mandate is to ensure that it begins to impact the current gloomy statistics to start to change.

 “We are passionate about keeping young people healthy, especially women who we find are exposed to an increased risk of acquiring HIV and becoming pregnant. Young women also have limited access to reproductive and women’s health services including contraception and breast and cervical cancer screening and treatment,” says HEAIDS director Dr Ramneek Ahluwalia.HEAIDS is also concerned about the growing number of student girls who are in relationships with older men for financial stability. This exposes them not only to HIV and other STIs, but also to violence.

 As Women’s Month comes to a close, HEAIDS is calling on young people – men and women alike – as well as stakeholders and academics in the higher education sector to participate in continued robust dialogue to address the ongoing challenges. South African College Principals Organisation (SACPO) Chairperson and HEAIDS board member Helen Ntlaleng fully supports the work that HEAIDS does for students on campus saying: “We focus a lot on enriching our youth academically forgetting that we must be the custodians of their well-being too. As a mother myself my desire is that young women know that we are invested in them and seeing them succeed in every way.”

 Dr Ahluwalia: “Women’s Month is a reminder of the work that still needs to be done. But once the month ends we cannot watch from the side-lines as our girls continue to be exploited and used as commodities. We have to show them a better way of living that will keep them healthy and safe from harm.”