What Happens #WhenGirlsRunTheWorld: Adolescent Girls and Young Women Taking Center Stage in Health Interventions

20 Jun 2018

Around the world, adolescent girls and young women are raising their voices to address issues affecting their lives and wellbeing. Maggie Medison, a 16-year old young woman from Lilongwe, Malawi is one of them. Her story is about HIV and her work to prevent infection among her peers.

As a young Malawian woman, Maggie’s chances of contracting HIV are 45 times higher than a young woman in Sweden. Relative to her male peers, Maggie is more likely to have a low level of education and poor access to health information, products, and services. While the odds may seem against her, Maggie’s future is bright, in part because she is using her voice to protect her health and the health of her peers.

Maggie is a peer educator for USAID’s Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored and Safe (DREAMS) partnership, where she has been trained to mentor women her age on how to stay HIV-free. Through DREAMS, adolescent girls and young women like Maggie are using their voices to address HIV head-on, underscoring an important message on the role of authenticity and empathy in conversations about health.

This message – and the lessons it holds – were the topic of a Cannes Lions Health Festival panel moderated by Rajesh Mirchandani, Chief Communications & Marketing Officer for the UN Foundation. Our president, Briana Ferrigno, joined Anna Blue, Co-Executive Director, Girl Up, and Gloria Samen, Girl Up Teen Advisor Alum to talk about how and why we need to hear more young women’s voices. “There’s something very powerful about girls speaking up for girls and telling people to take action. People pay attention in a very different way. This is the first generation of young girls who, from a very young age, understand and are acting on their power to create change” said Anna Blue.

Evidence has shown the global community that educated and healthy girls stay in school longer, marry later, delay childbearing, have healthier children, develop life skills, and earn higher incomes. Yet, compared to their male counterparts, girls can face critical health risks: in 2016, HIV infections were 44% higher in young women aged 15-24 than in their male counterparts. These disparities offer an implicit explanation for why HIV prevention and education specifically for girls and young women is urgently needed.

While the need for more health interventions targeted at girls is being met through HIV prevention initiatives, more programs and policies need to listen to and reflect the voices of young girls and women. Adolescent girls and young women’s collective wisdom and experience hold insights to unlock solutions to many of the world’s intractable global health challenges.

“When developing communications aimed at informing girls and young women about their HIV prevention options, we look for the universal truths about their experiences that are authentic and relevant to them,” said Briana Ferrigno, President of McCann Global Health. “We need to listen and understand what is important in girls’ lives so that we can help unlock the power of their own voices to create meaningful behavior change.”

While not a panacea, engaging young women like peer educator Maggie Medison in the development of HIV prevention efforts is a critical ingredient in creating interventions and tools that resonate and inspire action. We are here to listen.

Pictured, from left to right:

Rajesh Mirchandani, Chief Communications & Marketing Officer for the UN Foundation; Briana Ferrigno, President of McCann Global Health; Gloria Samen, Girl Up Teen Advisor Alum; and Anna Blue, Co-Executive Director for Girl Up.

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