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Schoolgirls in South Africa at much greater risk of HIV/AIDS

Worldwide, young women aged 15-24 are the group most vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, with infection rates currently twice as high as those for young men.

The disparity is most pronounced in sub-Saharan Africa, where 3.1% of young women are living with HIV, compared with 1.3% of young men. The vulnerability of young girls to HIV is partly cultural, reflecting the position of women in sub-Sarah Africa and the promotion of masculinity, where men feel they have sexual rights over women.

But poverty is another driver of HIV transmission. Many women are forced to enter relationships as a way of making a livelihood and young girls are often coerced into being with older men who can support them financially. This can have a devastating impact on the health of young girls.

In South Africa, for example, the country’s health minister, Aaron Motsoaledi, recently announced that at least 28% of schoolgirls are testing HIV positive. This compares with infection rates of just 4% for boys of the same age. The minister blames this situation on the prevalence of South African men acting as ‘sugar daddies’ to young girls in order to exploit them sexually.

As well as leading to high HIV infection rates, the minister blamed such exploitation for the large number of abortions among young women. Speaking at a public meeting in Mpumalanga province, the minister said 94,000 schoolgirls had fallen pregnant in 2011 and state facilities had carried out 77,000 abortions. When they attended state clinics, many of these pregnant girls were testing positive for HIV/AIDS, even some as young as 10 to 14 years of age.

Given the difference in new infection rates between young girls and boys, the Sowetan news (referred to in an article by the BBC) quoted South Africa’s health minister as saying “it is clear that it is not young boys who are sleeping with these girls”. And he said that the high number of young girls proving to be HIV-positive “destroyed [his] soul”.

Since becoming the health minister in 2009, Mr Motsoaledi has overseen a huge scale-up in the treatment of HIV/AIDS within South Africa. Official statistics show that more than 1 in 10 South Africans are living with the disease and the country now has the largest anti-retroviral programme in the world. This provides treatment to around 1.5 million HIV-positive people, significantly reducing the number of deaths. But this progress is not enough for the minister, who wants to see fewer people, particularly young girls, infected in the first place.

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