U.S. State Department: Include Women and Girls to Ensure Healthy Futures for All

On the heels of the UN High-Level Meeting on Ending AIDS, the U.S. State Department hosted an event this week, sponsored by the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and Population Services International (PSI). This event, which was moderated by PEPFAR Ambassador Deborah Birx, focused on improving the health and well-being of women and girls everywhere. Before the panelists spoke, Ambassador Birx provided some important context for the discussion: 1,000 adolescent girls and young women in sub-Saharan Africa are infected with HIV every day. In addition, girls make up 75 percent of all new adolescent infections.

In her remarks before the panel, Jacquelyne Alesi, Executive Director of the Uganda Network of Young People Living with HIV & AIDS, highlighted the need to trust young women and adolescent girls, and make sure they’re at the center of development work. Alesi advocated for women and girls to be included as decision-makers; empowering women and girls to run their own programs is a very important demonstration of trust.

Pam Scott, a founding member of the recently-launched Maverick Collective, then outlined the benefits of human-centered design. She gave an example of her work with PSI in Tanzania. Adolescent girls are empowered in their community to visit clinics, doctors’ offices and pharmacies to report back which local businesses are “teen-friendly” and supportive of their health needs. Sharing information about where adolescent girls can go to get the care they need is a key to unlocking better health outcomes.

Debra Messing, an actor and PSI Ambassador, discussed the power of narrative to change minds and move policy. She described a trip to Zimbabwe where she met a woman who had been diagnosed with HIV and then ostracized, including rejection by her family, once she revealed her status. Messing noted that like many others, this woman did not know about the resources available to help protect her from contracting HIV. Ensuring that everyone can access health resources will not only improve health outcomes, but also save lives.

With women and girls at the center of the post-2015 development agenda, it’s crucial that they are reached with health interventions. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has announced a significant investment to narrow the gender data gap, which will help health workers know where gender-targeted programming is needed. More data, particularly sex and age-disaggregated data, will allow the global health community to better and more efficiently target those who are most vulnerable to disease.

Raising up the voices of women and girls on these issues – and making sure they are not only heard but counted – will benefit everyone. For a brighter, healthier future, we must be inclusive of girls’ and women’s experiences. As Ambassador Birx summed up at the end of the event: Empathy for others comes from listening.