Adolescent girls and young women (AGYW) in sub-Saharan Africa remain at alarmingly high risk of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Every two minutes, an adolescent girl or young woman (15-24 years old) was newly infected with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa in 2021, equivalent to 4,900 AGYW acquiring HIV every week. In Cameroon, adolescent girls and young women aged 15-24 years are nine times more likely to contract HIV than their male counterparts, according to the Cameroon Population-based HIV Impact Assessment survey 2017 (CAMPHIA). Getting girls through at least a secondary education is a key strategy to enable AGYWs to prevent HIV — with impressive drops in new HIV infections by as much as 50 per cent in high-prevalence countries.
Increasing educational attainment among AGYW is also linked to better sexual and reproductive health outcomes and safer births. In Cameroon, only 49 per cent of girls attend secondary school, according to a government sectoral analysis. School drop-out rates remain high, especially among girls, which is partly attributable to a high number of early and unwanted pregnancies, early marriage and multiple forms of gender-based and intimate partner violence.
Towards a Solution
In December 2020, the five UN co-lead agencies – the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) – rolled out the Education Plus Initiative (2021-2025) in Cameroon under the One UN banner. The initiative is a high-level political advocacy drive to accelerate actions and investments to prevent HIV. It is centred on the empowerment of adolescent girls and young women and the achievement of gender equality in sub-Saharan Africa—with secondary education as the strategic entry point. The initiative intends to achieve its aims by:
- bringing high-level political leadership, investment and financing support behind multi-sectoral and gender-transformative programmes;
- targeting key policy and legislative reforms to protect the fundamental rights of adolescents and young women across the initiative’s issues of focus;
- amplifying and building synergies with other leading initiatives and securing wide-scale mobilization of coalitions and networks, including at the community level, who share similar objectives from across the different movements and disciplines and bringing them around a common goal for impact;
- profiling and supporting the leadership and meaningful participation of adolescent girls and young women in all their diversity; and
- ensuring increased investments in gender-responsive and transformative approaches to tackling harmful gender norms.
In 2021, an inclusive, bottom-up stakeholder engagement strategy to co-create Education Plus Initiative design and priorities was adopted. Nine consultative meetings at the ministerial-level and UN Heads of Agencies were held. The key ministries engaged included Ministries of Health, Secondary Education, Primary Education, Youth, Women’s Affairs, Social Affairs, Employment and Training, Finance and Decentralisation. Three workshops with more than 70 civil society organizations and their respective youth leaders from across Cameroon’s regions were held; one workshop with traditional and community leaders; one meeting with religious leaders; several meetings with Groupement Inter-patronal du Cameroun (GICAM), the umbrella organization of the fifty biggest private companies in the country; and numerous meetings with technical and financial partners including the European Union, the African Development Bank (AfDB) and embassies of the consultative meetings of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Each key ministry and civil society organization appointed a dedicated focal point for the initiative and three interministerial workshops were held to co-create the initiative and prepare critical milestones – the Theory of Change and Education Plus Initiative roadmap (2022-2025). A multi-stakeholder workshop developed a Theory of Change adapted from the global level theory of change and a joint work plan. Three leading youth organizations, Réseaux Jeunes,AfriYan and RECAJ+ (Cameroonian Network of Adolescents and Positive Youth) established a new youth engagement structure (RARE+) to coordinate their contribution to the co-creation process. Additionally, in partnership with Cameroonian French tennis star and singer Yannick Noah, between December 2021 and March 2022 a nationwide multimedia communication campaign was launched, with key messages on girls’ education, health and empowerment.
The completion of the Country’s road map and project documents including communication and public advocacy strategies are underway to facilitate resource mobilization and implementation. Since the Education Plus initiative roll-out in 2021, through intersectoral advocacy and engagement, the country has made great strides in enabling policy and legal reforms to realize the rights of adolescent girls and young women and to advance gender equality, focused on tackling the gender-discriminatory barriers keeping girls from enjoying their rights to secondary education and health. These policy reforms include: learner pregnancy prevention and management; progress in adoption of an inclusive education policy; and ongoing work on civil registration and vital statistics for identity documents that will facilitate access to education, health and other services.
On 22 April 2022, the Ministry of Education drafted and disseminated a circular to regional and divisional delegates, education secretaries and principals on the procedures for handling cases of student pregnancy in state and private secondary schools to ensure that pregnant girls have access to school and layered multi-sectoral support. This circular overrode all previous contrasting provisions set out in 1980 on the same theme. This experience of transformative policy shifts in support of pregnant learners was presented by an official of the Ministry of Secondary Education to high-level political decision makers at the 50th session of the UNAIDS Programme Coordination Board (PCB) comprised of representatives of 22 governments from all geographical regions, the UNAIDS co-sponsors, and five representatives of non-governmental organizations, including associations of people living with HIV. The knowledge generation and sharing by Cameroon, and the decisions made by the PCB recognizing the importance of the education sector in HIV prevention, are accelerating the adoption of the Education Plus model to all geographical regions – a demonstration of the most dynamic dimensions of South-South and triangular cooperation.
Cameroon is one of 14 current champion countries that publicly committed at the highest levels of government to Education Plus. More countries are expected to join the Education Plus movement. This innovative Education Plus model is a joint UN Initiative that supports bringing governments and partners together across multiple sectors by connecting health, education, social services and other support systems, and by helping to position schools as an entry point to provide socio-economic support to adolescents and youth living with and impacted by HIV. This ensures that across sectors, the initiative is creating opportunities for access to education, health and jobs with a particular focus on adolescent girls and young women for accelerating the achievement of African regional commitments and frameworks such as Agenda 2063, the Maputo Protocol on women’s human rights, the African Union (AU) Youth Charter, commitments of the Ministers of Education and Health from countries in Eastern and Southern Africa and the SDGs, International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and Beijing agreements among others.