Like so many of us, I grew up taking certain things for granted: living in a nice house, going to school and getting an education, going to parties and dating boys, and choosing a job that I love.
But with maturity, I realized that not every girl or boy grows up with a life filled with possibilities and opportunities.
When I met Nicolet in Grabouw, a township just an hour from Cape Town, South Africa, I was confronted with her reality -- a story that mirrors that of thousands of young women just like her. It's a story of survival, a story that needs to be told.
As a child, Nicolet had a difficult home life fueled by an alcoholic parent and poverty. Longing for affection and hoping for a better life, Nicolet met her first boyfriend when she was 13, he was 19. Where she was born, more than 2,000 young women and girls are infected with HIV every week. But sex and HIV are subjects that no one in her community talks about. In fact, people who are known to be ill are often shunned by their own families, and even though testing and medication are freely available, people don't go for testing, out of fear of what the result might be. So when Nicolet and her very first boyfriend started being intimate, she didn't know that he was HIV positive.
By the age of 17, Nicolet was pregnant and her boyfriend left her. Three years later, she fell ill and decided to get tested for HIV. Both she and her son were positive. To this day, the father of her son refuses to get tested, despite Nicolet's insistence that she was infected by him.
The time I spent with Nicolet was the beginning of a new journey for me to understand the role I can play in one of the greatest challenges and opportunities of our generation: ending the AIDS epidemic. The good news is that we are seeing more progress today than at any other time in history. Programs supported through the Global Fund partnership and global solidarity are saving millions of lives, preventing new infections and getting more and more people on treatment every day. However, the prospect of ending the epidemic for good will only be possible if we first end the disproportionate impact of HIV on young women and girls. This sobering reality is crystal clear in sub-Saharan Africa, where young women and girls are twice as likely to get HIV as their male peers.
Nicolet's story, which is far too common, is the beginning of a vicious cycle that demands our attention. The solution is far from simple, but we must start by recognizing the intrinsic connection between education, empowerment, opportunity, and health. A girl who completes secondary school is less likely to get married early, get pregnant early, or to be infected with HIV. Young women need to see a future for themselves that is safe and not dependent on men. HIV continues to prey on the most vulnerable because gender-based violence, lack of opportunity, and discrimination create environments where the epidemic can thrive. That is what I learned in Grabouw.
What inspired me most about Nicolet's story, is that despite the odds stacked against her, she did not give up. Today, at 26, as a mother and an early childhood teacher, Nicolet is dedicated to making a change in her community and empowering her son's and her student's generation to avoid the challenges she faced as an adolescent. She is open about her status and wants to inspire her peers to protect themselves and seek support if they need it.
There is hope to end the AIDS epidemic because people like Nicolet wake up every day and choose not to accept the world they inherited. They work hard for a world where opportunity and equality spread faster than any disease. We have a responsibility to future generations of young women to ensure this vision succeeds.