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Action Alert from Adolescent Girls and Young Women with support from ATHENA network

Across the world, the public health emergency posed by COVID-19 continues to impact and unfold in multiple and intersecting ways in our communities. A crisis has the power to make the invisible visible. When it comes to adolescent girls and young women and COVID19, this is certain because while COVID19 is a public health crisis, it also lays bare the inequities and injustices that plague the world. COVID19 has reinforced existing inequalities across race, gender, age, and across countries.

Substantial evidence and analysis demonstrate that COVID19 disproportionately affects women and girls. COVID19 tells a tale of how quickly a global health emergency can put the precarious gains made on adolescent girls’ and young women’s access to sexual and reproductive health and rights(SRHR) and HIV prevention at considerable risk – both as a result of the pandemic and the resultant responses in which priorities are being ‘rearranged’.

This statement affirms and reinstates support to the rallying calls already made by various civil society and feminist networks. In particular, those calling on governments and stakeholders to utilize human rights approach guided by the principles of equity and non-discrimination; Centering on the most marginalized people and ensuring that everyone has access to necessary information, support systems, prevention tools, treatment and resources during the current dual pandemics of HIV and COVID-19. Now more than ever, we need to fulfill our commitments of the SDGs to reach the furthest behind first and remedy historical injustices and inequities.

Specifically, this statement aims to raise the alarm and serve as an action alert to governments, UN agencies, multilateral and bilateral donors, members of civil society, and girl-serving agencies and organizations. The statement aims to remind us of what is at stake for adolescent girls and young women  The statement also outlines the actions needed to avoid a catastrophic undoing of all the investments and progress made, albeit precarious, to advance the socio-economic well-being of adolescent girls and young women, their health and well-being. 

Lessons from direct interactions with adolescent girls and young women are revealing what is known to us – COVID19 is exacerbating pre-existing challenges for adolescent girls and young women and heightening their vulnerability to HIV and violence. 
 Leadership and visibility for and by Adolescent girls and young women:
 In contexts of pressure and dire need, such as COVID19 coupled with existing challenges presented by HIV, targeted responses that consider the unique needs of adolescent girls don’t often exist. The needs of girls and young women often get lost between efforts aimed at children or adult women. Limited funding that lacks a gender lens in emergency responses means very little of this money goes toward adolescent girls and young women who are being disproportionately impacted by  COVID-19 alongside HIV in a myriad of ways, including adverse effects on their education, personal safety, bodily autonomy, health, peer support, social connections, economic prospects and control of their SRHR. Instead, we revert to a context where we either adopt a blanket approach or completely revert to invisibilizing adolescent girls and young women

ACTION: We need to maintain adolescent girls and young women-centered and serving programs, funding streams, and services. COVID19 exacerbates various challenges already affecting AGYW’s lives, particularly at the intersection of HIV, SRHR, and gender inequity. Dedicated platforms, avenues, and resources are therefore needed to consider the unique needs of AGYW worldwide, the specific risks they face, and the tailored response required.

Violence against women and girls:

Adolescent girls and young women report an increase in violence in their lives caused by the impact of COVID19, the restrictions on movement, the financial hardship of the outbreak and heightened exposure to abuse, exploitation, and violence in their home. Travel and movement restrictions pose a significant challenge to providing VAWG support to adolescent girls and young women and economic violence and economic-instigated VAWG has increased due to loss of livelihoods for adolescent girls and young women who majorly operate in cash economies.

ACTION: Governments should work to ensure that toll-free helplines are functional and that information is accessible to adolescent girls and young women , provide resources for non-profits (NGOs) and public services that provide VAW/G support, including shelters, referral services, and legal aid, and working around providing substitute means of livelihoods for adolescent girls and young women . This includes wide dissemination of information and listing these as part of essential services and creation of safe spaces guaranteed access to pre and post post exposure prophylaxis
COVID19 is exacerbating drivers of HIV acquisition among adolescent girls and young women  and causing more strain for adolescent girls and young women who are living with HIV. HIV related stigma and discrimination persists for adolescent girls and young women and is worsened by COVID19. During the lockdown, adolescent girls and young women  have to travel long distances to access HIV services in places where they are not known and have reported being forced to disclose their HIV status in order to acquire permits to travel to facilities to access necessary medications, including ARVs. Access to integrated SRHR and HIV services is not uniform across all facilities thus limiting access to comprehensive care. The pandemic has impacted supply chains, causing stockouts of HIV critical treatment and prevention tools. Modeling from WHO and UNAIDS further suggests significant reversal in gains made to prevent vertical transmission.

ACTION: Increased access to HIV prevention and treatment services and commodities for adolescent girls and young women including improved access to HIV self-testing kits. Utilizing community support mechanisms such as group focal points registered to collect ARVs and PrEP as a preventive measure on behalf of adolescent girls and young women support groups for adolescents and young women living with and vulnerable to HIV. Protect supply chains and increase the number of treatment individuals can access a health facility during a visit. 
Sexual and reproductive health and rights:
OVID19 has increased barriers to access of SRHR for adolescent girls and young women. Shortages of commodities, such as contraceptives, are due to disruption of global supply chains, diminished purchasing power due to halts in cash economies and shifts of health resources to #COVID19. These realities have put adolescent girls and young women at risk for other exposures, such as the heightened risk of HIV and unplanned teenage pregnancy. This is in addition to restrictions on movement creating more  barriers to care, including maternity care
ACTION: Sexual and reproductive health services, commodities, and rights must not be de-prioritized by governments. They are essential and life-saving, therefore essential to the response to this crisis.

Economic justice and well-being:
Across the globe, loss of livelihood has been one of the significant impacts of the COVID19 crisis. For adolescent girls and young women, the outbreak poses a severe threat to livelihoods and sustenance. This is because of gendered job segregation- where girls and women occupy lower-paying jobs, often requiring intensive work, constituting over 70% of the informal economy. Due to COVID19 adolescent girls and young women are more likely to take on high-risk work for their economic survival, such as sex work, which further drives vulnerability to HIV and STIs given limited negotiating power. 

ACTION: Responses to the outbreak must protect and support adolescent girls’ young women’s economic empowerment. The economic stimulus packages rolled out by governments must also incorporate the unique needs and economic situations of adolescent girls and young women.

Gendered digital divide:

COVID19 has led to a shift where the internet and technology are primary for social connection, access to economic activity, opportunities to engage in spaces where decisions are being made about adolescent girls’ and young women’s health and rights, and access to information.

Yet, according to Girl Effect and Vodafone Foundation globally, boys are 1.5 times more likely to own a phone (including smartphones) than girls, and more boys are using mobile technology than girls. Also, girls and young women lack equal access to STEM education, and gendered biases curtail girls’ and young women’s ability to benefit from the opportunities offered by digital transformation.

Also, COVID19 restrictions have exposed adolescent girls and young women to VAW/G— including cyber-violence.  Do we mean Moving to an all-virtual approach to various aspects of life has exacerbated cyber-bullying and violence?

ACTION:  Government and internet service providers should expand free internet access and make data bundles cheaper to increase access to online educational platforms and equal access to opportunities from the digital transformation. We also call upon governments to put more effort and resources towards the prevention of harassment and gendered cyberbullying.

About the author

Byron Adonis Mutingwende