AIDS is the leading cause of death among adolescents (10–19) in Africa.  Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the regions with the highest numbers of HIV-positive adolescents.  Out of the 1.8 million adolescents living with HIV, about 80% live in sub-Saharan Africa.  More adolescents have died as a result of HIV/AIDS over the past decade than any other group.  Meanwhile, a reduced number of AIDS-related deaths amongst all other age groups were observed.  According to a report from UNICEF in 2016, some 250,000 adolescents between the ages of 15 to 19 were newly infected with HIV in 2015.

These disheartening facts got me thinking a lot about the Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) of adolescents living in this gorgeous continent.  I have extensively interacted with adolescents through various forums in my work. I am frequently enthused by the eagerness and curiosity to learn that these adolescents express when I spark a discussion about SRHR, particularly when it is usually an uphill task to get anyone talking about sexual health or even HIV/AIDS.  Many communities in sub-Saharan Africa are yet to accept the sexual and reproductive health realities that can be attributed to this dark reality.

Kenya, my home country, is one of the six countries in the world with the highest number of adolescents living with HIV.  It is also one of the sub-Saharan countries where sex and HIV are topics you’ll hardly hear people discuss openly.

HIV-related stigma and discrimination has further made it difficult for adolescents to access knowledge and services.  Instead, the stigma has fuelled myths and misconceptions about HIV/AIDS. As a result, this has had significant influence on the limitation of information and services focused on HIV/AIDS.

In the past decade, the average levels of knowledge have narrowly increased.  Alarmingly, 70% of adolescents in the age bracket of 15 to 19 years in sub-Saharan Africa do not have comprehensive HIV knowledge, and thus are less likely to know tools of prevention, epidemiological spread, and management.  The common narrative usually ascribes shame to those who have increased knowledge on SRHR/HIV, attributing their insight to increased promiscuity.  This prejudice ignores a harsh reality, and, using harmful cultural and religious norms, sustains the likelihood of infection and mismanagement.  This actively prevents access to HIV information for all people, and should be put to an end.

To empower adolescents with information and services, all stakeholders ought to work together to bring life to the saying that “Knowledge is power.”  This power should be made accessible to all adolescents regardless of their race, gender or socioeconomic background.

I concur with Michel Sidibé, UNAIDS Executive Director, when he says: “Ending the AIDS epidemic is dependent on social justice, which demands equity in education, employment and health for both girls and boys.  We must make the conscious decision to empower young women and girls to take control of their own health choices.”

The ALL IN! To End Adolescent AIDS agenda was launched in Nairobi in early 2015.   The agenda focuses on four key action areas:

1. Engaging, mobilizing and empowering adolescents as leaders and actors of social change

2. Improving data collection to better inform programming

3. Encouraging innovative approaches to reach adolescents with essential HIV services adapted to their needs

4. Placing adolescent HIV firmly on political agendas to spur concrete action and mobilize resources.

What I like about the ALL IN! Agenda is its emphasis on adolescent involvement in decision-making processes that have a direct effect on their wellbeing.  Continuous participation of adolescents in HIV eradication programmes increases their ownership of HIV interventions and accelerates efforts towards ending the AIDS epidemic by 2030.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can be viewed as a hoist to zero new HIV infections among adolescents.  SDG 3 seeks to ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages.  Sub-Saharan nations ought see to it that the sexual and reproductive health needs of adolescents are fully met by ensuring health policies and strategies put the focus on adolescents, as well as clearly articulating measures that will turn around the HIV epidemic amongst adolescents.

Major investments in sexual and reproductive health are pivotal in combating the spread of HIV/AIDS among adolescents.  Sub-Saharan Africa is quickly adopting use of the Internet as an education tool. Though governments and other stakeholders should take advantage of these technological opportunities to create awareness on SRHR/HIV, they have not yet fully embraced this opportunity for the invaluable resource that it is.  It is only by working together across sectors - and in collaboration with adolescents and young leaders – that we can forge a successful and sustainable pathway to adulthood for adolescents.

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