Why we must fight harder for the rights of young women and girls

In the scenic valley of Panjshir, a bridge built with UNDP support makes it possible for Bahara and her classmates to go to school. Photo: Omer/UNDP Afghanistan

In her 2013 memoir, activist Malala Yousafzai recounts a moment that changes not only the course of her destiny but that of many other young girls across the world. On a trip in northwest Pakistan, she comes across a girl selling oranges who is unable to read or write. Disturbed by the discovery that this girl had not received an education, Malala makes a decision that she famously continues to see through: "I would do everything in my power to help educate girls just like her. This was the war I was going to fight."

This year, Human Rights Day calls on everyone to stand up for someone's rights. Malala's example is what we all need to do more of: stand up for the rights of young women and girls in health, education and beyond.

It is no secret that gender equality remains an unfulfilled promise in most parts of the world. The integration of gender equality into the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development reflects a growing body of evidence that it has multiplier effects across many spheres of development. Despite this recognition, gender inequalities persist throughout the world, ranging from women's disproportionate burden of unpaid work and lack of access to economic resources to widespread violence against women and girls including early and forced marriage and harmful practices.

Young women and girls in particular are being left behind. They are often excluded from decision-making processes, they continue to face severe disadvantage and exclusion in education systems throughout their lives, and they often have little to no agency over their futures and their bodies. When young women and girls are deprived of their sexual and reproductive health and rights, their right to education, their right to freedom from violence, their right to accessible, affordable and adequate health care without discrimination, this has grave implications for the health and well-being of humanity at-large.

In the starkest terms, current HIV trends tell us that young women and girls are being left the furthest behind when it comes to their right to health: their right to live long and productive lives. Last year, nearly 7,500 young women aged 15-24 years contracted HIV every week, the vast majority in southern Africa. Discrimination, gender-based violence, laws which fail to protect and empower women and girls and poor educational and employment opportunities increase young women and girls' potential exposure to HIV. There is also an unacceptable lack of adolescent and youth-friendly sexual health and HIV services across the world.

To that end, a gendered approach is critical as a young woman is twice as likely to contract HIV as a young man. In the hardest hit countries, girls account for 80 percent of new infections among adolescents. This means we urgently need to scale up our investments in effective HIV prevention efforts for young women and adolescent girls. These efforts should focus on challenging harmful social norms and making youth-friendly HIV and essential health services as well as comprehensive sexuality education available to young women and girls, among other things. We also need to put in place the conditions that ensure young women and adolescent girls can claim their rights, access prevention and treatment services and live free of violence and discrimination. Stopping child marriage and improving access to treatment will also have a strong, measurable impact. Men and boys have an important part to play.

As a part of its follow up on the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, UNDP has conducted a systematic review of age-of-consent laws in 25 countries which contribute to 80% of all new HIV infections in adolescents. The aim is to help countries improve their legal and policy environment for young women and girls and young men and boys so that they can better access essential services. This will help ensure that adolescents are not excluded from or denied access to HIV testing services and life-saving treatment.

There has never been a more pressing time in our history to stand up for the rights of young women and girls. If we want to make any significant progress on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, we need to place young women and girls front and center of our efforts. If we hope to eliminate HIV in young girls and women, we must seek out new approaches that address the structural drivers that heighten their risk of contracting HIV, including poverty, violence, a lack of education, and the uneven distribution of power in society. How we move forward from this moment could mean the difference between a more equitable world--where human rights and good health are the norm and not the exception--or an unjust one characterized by illness, inequity and a dearth of human rights.

Let's choose the right path. Let's be inspired by Malala, the 15-year-old girl who would not take no for an answer.