When I think back on my own teenage years, a lot of cringe-worthy things come to mind: braces, terrible fashion choices, a failed driver’s license test, awkward first dates, and more. But not once did I have to worry about my education, health, or safety—those felt like automatics, and (as teenagers are apt to do) I took them for granted.
This week, I was reminded of just how lucky I was growing up. As leaders gathered at the United Nations to adopt the Global Goals and talk about the world’s pressing issues, the theme of reaching adolescent girls seemed to pop up everywhere.
The health risks faced by girls in this age bracket around the world are enormous—7,300 adolescent girls newly infected with HIV every week, for instance—but often, their plight remains just a talking point in a laundry list of development challenges.
This week, that started to change; I watched individuals and programs step up to show that adolescent girls deserved more of the world’s attention and resources.
One of the big announcements came on Saturday, when the United States’ PEPFAR program rolled out a new set of targets to guide its work over the next few years. PEPFAR is the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief—or the United States’ bilateral effort to fight AIDS around the world.
ONE and other groups had pushed PEPFAR to set new targets at a critical time for the fight against AIDS, and the new targets unveiled were worth the wait: Along with bold new treatment targets and commitments to male circumcision, PEPFAR set specific targets for adolescent girls and young women for the first time ever.
Working jointly with partner countries, the Global Fund, and the private sector, PEPFAR aims to achieve a 40% reduction in HIV incidence among adolescent girls and young women in the “highest burden areas of 10 African countries by 2017.” As Ambassador Deborah Birx, head of PEPFAR, has pointed out, and as National Security Advisor Susan Rice underscored during this announcement, “no greater action is needed right now than empowering adolescent girls and young women to defeat HIV/AIDS”—and I hope these new targets will help drive forward a bolder agenda that does more to reach them with the services they need.
Adolescent girls were also front and center at the season-four premiere of Shuga, an MTV show backed up with innovative radio, digital, and mobile elements. Shuga mixes messaging about HIV/AIDS and sexual health with soap opera-esque storylines set in Nigeria. It reaches more than 500 million households through 88 third-party broadcasters.
At the premiere, Shuga’s producers talked with representatives from PEPFAR and UNICEF about the evolution of season four, noting that they had added an adolescent story line specifically to acknowledge that if you only show stories of people in their twenties, you miss out on influencing some of the most at-risk, younger viewers. In the episodes I saw, the show was successful because it wasn’t preachy or formulaic—the characters and the health issues they faced felt real and relatable.
And perhaps the highlight of the week came from those who broke down adolescent girls as a monolithic group, telling deeply personal stories about individuals who had inspired them to action! In his address on Sunday, President Obama cited a Tanzanian teenager named Eva, concluding his remarks by saying: “For Eva, and all those just trying to survive another day… it can sometimes seem as if the world is blind to their struggles and their dreams. And so today, I say to Eva and hundreds of millions like her: We see you. We hear you. And we commit ourselves—as nations, as one world—to the urgent work that must be done.”
And today, the Global Fund launched a new video, telling the story of a young South African named Nicolet who became infected with HIV at age 13 by an 18-year-old boyfriend.
In both of these stories, there were clear links between a girl’s health and her education, economic opportunities, and empowerment within her community. They underscored that neglecting adolescent girls won’t just impact them as individuals—it will impede all of our efforts to improve livelihoods and development outcomes.
Were it not for the random lottery of where I was born, Eva’s or Nicolet’s story could have easily been mine. And I want nothing more than for every young girl, regardless of where she grows up, to have the luxury of cringing over braces and cars, rather than worrying if she can go to school or whether she can protect herself from HIV. Join us in calling out the simple fact that poverty is sexist, and congratulate those who have used their platforms of power this week to make real strides in fixing it.