The United Nations High Level Taskforce on women, girls, gender equality and HIV for Eastern and Southern Africa has called for accelerated effort in protecting the rights and wellbeing of young girls.
The taskforce concluded its one-week high-level political advocacy mission in South Africa on Saturday, calling for renewed effort and commitment to protect the health and rights of young girls in the country.
The taskforce was in the country to conduct a mid-term review. The Department for Women, Children and People with Disabilities invited the taskforce to do an independent assessment of the extent to which the country has been able to discharge its responsibilities and to share its views and experiences on the critical issues facing women and girls in the country such as teenage pregnancy, gender based-violence, prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) of HIV and sex work.
Members of the taskforce met with South Africa's high-level political leadership, the United Nations in South Africa, civil society organisations and other stakeholders working on the HIV response. They also held discussions with networks of women, people living with HIV and lesbian, gay, bisexual transgender and intersex (LGBTI) communities as part of their assessment process.
Kenyan Minister of Gender, Children and Social Development - who was the leader of the delegation -Dr Naomi Shaban applauded the South African government for its efforts in PMTCT.
"South Africa has done a commendable job in significantly reducing transmission of HIV from pregnant women to their new-borns, but more still needs to be done to keep mothers alive," said Shaban.
South Africa has seen a decrease in mother-to-child transmission (MTCT) from 3.5% in 2010 to 2.7% in 2011, and is well on its way to meeting the 2011 Political Declaration on HIV and Aids target of virtually eliminating MTCT by 2015.
South Africa has developed a programme with four outcome areas - increasing life expectancy; addressing maternal mortality, dealing with TB and HIV, and strengthening the health care system.
The taskforce, however, noted that despite South Africa's progress in the HIV response, women and girls remained disproportionately affected by the epidemic, with young girls - particularly teenagers - still vulnerable to unplanned pregnancy and HIV infection.
The Department of Basic Education General Household Survey 2010 indicated that 1% of female learners attending school fell pregnant in 2009/10, equating to approximately 89 390 girls.
UNAIDS Regional Director and a member of the taskforce, Professor Sheila Tlou, said the prevention of unplanned pregnancies and HIV infection in young girls must be a major priority of the South African government.
"Keeping girls in school is the best thing we can do to reduce new infections among girls and women and help them to reach their potential."
The taskforce noted how crimes of gender-based violence, including brutal hate crimes against the LGBTI community, and in particular the 'corrective' rape of lesbians, created a climate of fear and drove communities underground, fuelling HIV infection.
Shaban commended Minister Lulu Xingwana for initiating the National Council against Gender-Based Violence and urged her department to strengthen the council's capacity to fight gender-based violence as part of addressing HIV/Aids.
"Our collective conscience as a nation must refuse to accept that women and girls continue to perish from preventable diseases as a result of our failure to place gender equality and women's empowerment at the centre of our policies," said Xingwana.
The department's Deputy Minister, Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, said the work done by the taskforce would help them to identify gaps and challenges, which would enable them to develop more effective intervention programmes.
"Any programme aimed at addressing gender-based violence and HIV prevention must target men. We have a responsibility to mobilise, educate and empower men and ensure that they are part of the solution," said Bogopane-Zulu.