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LUSAKA, ZAMBIA, 17 July 2022—Leaders at the Africa Union 4th Mid-Year Coordination Meeting in Lusaka, Zambia, have pledged their support for the 'Education Plus' initiative at its continental launch, committing to take action to keep adolescent girls in school, thus reducing vulnerability to HIV.

Jointly led by UNAIDS, UNESCO, UNFPA, UNICEF, UN Women, the ‘Education Plus’ initiative is a high-profile, high-level political advocacy drive to accelerate actions and investments to prevent HIV, centred on the empowerment of adolescent girls and young women and the achievement of gender equality in sub-Saharan Africa—with secondary education as the strategic entry point.

Data highlights that every week, around 4,200 adolescent girls and young women in sub-Saharan Africa acquire HIV. In 2020, six in seven adolescents aged between 15—19 years old acquiring HIV in the region were girls. More than 23,000 young women died from AIDS-related illnesses in 2020, making it the second leading cause of death among women aged 15—29 after maternal mortality in sub-Saharan Africa.

Keeping girls in secondary school and providing them with life skills, training and employment opportunities is therfore key to ending the AIDS pandemic in Africa. Research shows that ensuring that girls complete secondary education reduces their risk of acquiring HIV by up to half, and that combining this with a package of services and rights for girls’ empowerment reduces their risk further still. 

Education Plus calls for free and quality secondary education for all girls and boys in sub-Saharan Africa by 2025; universal access to comprehensive sexuality education; fulfilment of sexual and reproductive health and rights; freedom from gender-based and sexual violence; school-to-work transitions, and economic security and empowerment. 

“My Government has committed to the provision of free primary and secondary education for  all,” said President Hakainde Hichilema, President of the Republic of Zambia, who hosted the summit. “Education is the greatest equalizer and with appropriate education, everyone is given an opportunity to explore their full potential and be able to participate in the development process. Access to education empowers both girls and boys as it enhances their ability to access decent jobs and other means of production thus alleviating poverty.”

The President of Senegal and current chair of the African Union, President Macky Sall, launched the initiative, supported by other Heads of State and  the Chairperson of the African Union Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat.

“It is my pleasure to join you on the occasion of the ceremony to launch the continental “Education Plus Initiative” under the leadership of the Organisation of African First Ladies (OAFLAD) in support to children and young girls in particular,” said President Sall. “There is need for action to promote women’s rights and autonomy, to fight against the discrimination and violence which girls and women face. We must address gender inequality at all stages of life. At the continental level, AU Member States are committed to accelerating the implementation of gender-specific economic, social, and legal measures aimed at combating the HIV/AIDS pandemic by adopting various policy and legal frameworks including the Maputo Protocol.”

“We are making progress in Africa but not fast enough,” said UNAIDS Executive Director, Winnie Byanyima in her address to the launch. “We need to urgently address the gender inequalities that still plague the continent, with devastating impacts on poor girls and young women. We don’t have a minute to wait.  Working together, we can all end discriminatory laws and harmful social norms, so that our girls are healthy, educated and empowered and can lead our continent, Africa, forward.”